My Ann Arbor Observer article on Fish Out of Water Books, and its premiere book, R.J. Fox’s ‘Love & Vodka’

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 3.24.48 PMIn 2011, R.J. Fox, who teaches video production and English at Huron, began sharing chapters from his humorous memoir, Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in the Ukraine, on Facebook. The unpublished book described Fox’s impulsive trip to Ukraine, at age twenty-three, to propose to a girl he’d met only once.

At around that same time, Ann Arbor residents Jon and Laurie Wilson–whose son, Kyle, had been Fox’s student–outlined a book project of their own. Titled Northern Souls, it would focus on their experiences growing up in the world of ’70s and ’80s pop culture on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Jon is from Manchester, England, where Laurie–who grew up in Canton–emigrated in the late ’80s. They married in 1989 and moved to Ann Arbor in 1993. Both have experienced cultural dissonance and are drawn to fish-out-of-water stories–to such a degree that, by 2012, they were kicking around the idea of launching a publishing company that specialized in them.

The couple read Fox’s Love and Vodka chapter “A Day at the Circus,” and were hooked. “Fox’s writing was so visual that it immediately brought this Soviet-style circus to life,” says Jon. “And the part where he describes the ‘Flying Dogs of Dnipropetrovsk’–where dogs were literally shot out of a cannon and floated down on parachutes–really stuck with us.” READ THE REST HERE


My review of the Purple Rose Theatre’s ‘Gaps in the Fossil Record’

Matt Letscher’s Gaps in the Fossil Record, now having its world premiere at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre, starts with an awkward paleontology professor, Richard (Mark Colson), giving an introductory class lecture. (We, the audience members, are stand-ins for his students.)


Mark Colson and Aja Brandmeier in “Gaps in the Fossil Record” at the Purple Rose Theatre. (Photo by Sean Carter Photography)

Richard points out that the basic skeletal structure of a human arm is echoed, again and again, in countless animal species, thus demonstrating a common point of origin and prompting questions like: what first motivated our genetic ancestors to leave their watery home and venture onto dry land? And regarding two human, 5,000 year old skeletons, found near Verona, Italy in 2007, who appear locked in an embrace – who were they, and what was their story?

Such questions represent, of course, unfillable gaps in the world’s fossil record; the queries for which there’s no hope for resolution, no matter how many ancient bones we unearth. READ THE REST HERE

Things to do around Ann Arbor this week: Water Hill Music Festival, ‘Purple Rain’ and more


A special screening of Prince’s film, “Purple Rain,” has been scheduled at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater on Saturday.

Several theater productions continue this week, including the world premiere of Matt Letscher’s “Gaps in the Fossil Record” at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre, and the new, original musical “Irrational” at Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova (housed at The Yellow Barn on Huron St.). At Dexter’s Encore Theatre, “Always … Patsy Cline” continues, and at Huron High, “Drop Dead” finishes its run this weekend. For more entertainment options, read on!

“Rock of Ages” at Pioneer High School Theater Guild. Will Branner directs students in Christopher D’Arienzo and Ethan Popp’s Broadway musical comedy, set in L.A. in the 1980s, about an aspiring rocker who encounters friendship, deception, and love on his road to stardom. The score is comprised of iconic ’80s songs, such as “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “The Final Countdown,” and other songs by Journey, Poison, Styx, and Bon Jovi. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (through May 7, 2016) at PHS Schreiber Auditorium, 601 W. Stadium in Ann Arbor. Tickets cost $15 (seniors age 65 & over and students, $10), available in advance at

Ark highlights. Heywood Banks is the stage name of Howell native Stuart Mitchell, a very animated comedian known for his silly musical spoofs, goofy prop humor, and sight gags. Since adopting the nerdy, quietly psychotic Banks persona in the mid-80s, he has risen from a regional favorite to a national star. Friday at 8 p.m. at The Ark; tickets are $25.

On Saturday night, you can check out The Ben Daniels Band. You’ll hear artful, dynamic rock and roll by this Chelsea quintet, led by singer-songwriter and guitarist Daniels, whose influences range from Robert Johnson to Dylan to Jack White. Saturday at 8 p.m.; tickets cost $15.

Both shows happens at The Ark, 316 S. Main in Ann Arbor, and show tickets are available in advance at, or 734-763-TKTS. Continue reading

2016 Sonic Lunch lineup announced

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Ann Arbor’s Laith Al-Saadi, who’s been killing it on this season of “The Voice,” will play a Sonic Lunch show. (Photo courtesy of NBC)

If you’re as ready for summer as I am, you’ll be excited to learn what’s in store at Sonic Lunch, the free live music series that happens each Thursday at noon, starting June 2nd at Liberty Plaza, at the intersection of Liberty and Division in Ann Arbor.

Here’s this year’s schedule:

6/2 Wild Belle

6/9 Laith Al-Saadi

6/16 Frontier Ruckus

6/23 JR w/ Joe Hawley of Tally Hall

6/30 Ben Daniels Band

7/7 The Outer Vibe

7/14 The Suffers

7/28 Brett Dennen w/ The Accidentals

8/4 Joshua Davis

8/11 The Ragbirds

8/18 Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers

8/25 Serena Ryder

My review of Encore Theatre’s ‘Always … Patsy Cline’

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Sonja Marquis and Emmi Veinbergs in “Always … Patsy Cline” at Dexter’s Encore Theatre. (Photo by Michele Anliker)

A “Saturday Night Live” writer once said that the show could leaven a risky sketch simply by putting Amy Poehler in it, calling the comedienne “a charm machine.”

But Dexter’s Encore Theatre, now staging Ted Swindley’s “Always … Patsy Cline,” may now lay claim to its own charm machine: Sonja Marquis, who plays a brassy Houston single mom (and Cline fanatic) named Louise.

When Louise learns that country music superstar Patsy Cline (Emmi Veinbergs) will be performimg in her town, she heads out to the venue hours early; meets and befriends the country music star; and convinces Cline to forgo her hotel reservation and instead spend the night at Louise’s home. After staying up into the wee hours sharing stories, the two women exchange addresses and sustain their friendship through a series of letters.

This set-up may sound far-fetched, but the two-hour show was inspired by a true story. And although the show is primarily a showcase of Cline’s music and distinctive vocal style, the admittedly light story of Cline’s friendship with Louise provides the show with a loose narrative framework. READ THE REST HERE

Things to do around Ann Arbor this week, April 18-24: Kiefer Sutherland, The Bad Plus & Joshua Redman and more

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The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, presented by UMS, play in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

Kiefer Sutherland at The Ark. This veteran movie actor and “24” star recently took up songwriting, and he’s about to release his debut CD, “Down in a Hole,” a collection of 11 songs he describes as “the closest thing I’ve ever had to a journal or diary … There is something very satisfying about being able to look back on my own life, good times and bad, and express those sentiments in music.” Monday at 8 p.m., The Ark, 316 S. Main in Ann Arbor. Tickets cost $21, available in advance at,, and 734-763-TKTS.

The Moth Storyslam. Popular monthly open mic storytelling competition sponsored by The Moth, the NYC-based nonprofit storytelling organization that also produces a weekly public radio show. Each month, 10 storytellers are selected at random from among those who sign up to tell a 3-5 minute story on the monthly theme, and the 3 judges are recruited from the audience. Monthly winners compete in a semiannual Grand Slam. Space limited, so it’s smart to arrive early. This week’s theme is “Romance.” Tuesday 7:30-9 p.m. (doors open and sign-up begins at 6 p.m.) at Circus, 210 S. First in Ann Arbor. Admission costs $10. Continue reading

U-M’s ‘Guys and Dolls’ nails choreography and notes, but feels emotionally flat


Joseph Sammour and Hannah Flam in U-M’s “Guys and Dolls.” (Photo by Peter Smith Photography)

One of the biggest laugh lines in U-M’s new production of “Guys and Dolls” belongs to Miss Adelaide (Hannah Flam), who says, after her gambling fiance Nathan Detroit (Joseph Sammour) stands her up on the night of their scheduled elopement, “Tell him I never want to talk to him again, and have him call me here.”

That’s the crux of “Guys,” of course. Based on the stories of Damon Runyon, with a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, the show explores the comical ways that love inspires us to ignore logic and, by extension, act in ways that seem to run counter to our self-interest.

Set in a cartoonish version of 1950s New York – scenic director Edward T. Morris designed a stage striped in shades of blue and purple that eventually climb up the backdrop and form a New York skyline – “Guys” tells the story of Detroit, who struggles to find a venue for his floating crap game just as his long-suffering fiancee of 14 years, nightclub performer Adelaide, pushes him to finally set a date for the wedding; and big-time roller Sky Masterson (Will Branner), who makes a $1,000 bet that he can get teetotaling missionary Sarah Brown (Solea Pfeiffer) to accompany him to Cuba.

Mark Madama directs U-M’s 2 1/2 hour production of “Guys,” but the first thing likely to jump out at you – and I mean that literally – is Mara Newbery Greer’s sharply polished choreography. From the humor-infused “Runyonland” opening (featuring a not-so-blind beggar, and a male stroller who won’t compromise his exaggeratedly long gait for any reason); to Adelaide and the Hot Box Girls’ flirty, sexy show numbers; to a smoking hot dance floor in Havana; to the one that beats them all for sheer athleticism and thrills, “The Crapshooter’s Dance/Luck Be a Lady,” Greer gives you plenty to watch while hearing the show’s beloved score. Continue reading

My review of the Ringwald’s Hitchcock parody, ‘The Hung Man’

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The Ringwald Theater’s world premiere production of “The Hung Man” pokes fun at the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Being a cinephile who’s watched a lot of Hitchcock classics isn’t necessary for enjoying the world premiere production of Ian Bonner and Marty Shea’s The Hung Man at Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre – but it does make the show even more deliciously fun.

Like Hitchcock’s “Rope,” The Hung Man takes place in the apartment of two hubristic men who appear to be hiding bodily proof of their crime in a trunk while also hosting a dinner party. Soon, characters who look a lot like the couple at the center of “Rear Window” arrive: wheelchair-bound Jimmy (Joel Mitchell, doing a spot-on Jimmy Stewart impression), with his leg in a hilariously enormous cast; and blond, self-assured ice princess Grace (Christa Coulter), who can’t figure out why her fiancee and host, John (Vince Kelley), seems far more interested in his roommate Farley (Richard Payton) than in her. And rounding out the party is John’s hyper-critical mother, Mrs. Collier (Joe Bailey, decorated in what’s practically clown lipstick), who enters the scene like a bull in a china shop.

As I mentioned, The Hung Man offers classic movie fans tons of opportunities to pick up on cheeky little references: the man in the building across the street who reportedly hung himself is George Kaplan – the fictional man Cary Grant is mistaken for in “North by Northwest”; Grace is repeatedly pecked at by menacing avians, a la “The Birds”; Jimmy brays “Hee Haw,” as Jimmy Stewart does in “It’s a Wonderful Life”; Grace is accused of thinking she’s “like the Princess of Monaco” when, of course, actress Grace Kelly held that title in real life; and there are passing references to “To Catch a Thief,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and more Hitchcock classics.

But in the end, film shout-outs aside, Ringwald’s go-for-broke ensemble, which seems to be having the time of its life on stage, is what really makes this Hitchcock mash-up so laugh-out-loud hysterical, particularly in the 90 minute play’s second act. Director Dyan Bailey seems to sustain the feel of a comedy sketch throughout, so that even when actors “break” (out of character, usually due to laughter), it only adds to the show’s joy instead of yanking you from its world. READ THE REST HERE

My Concentrate Media story on the legacy of Michigan’s film incentives

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Ann Arbor filmmaker Donald Harrison. (Photo by Doug Coombe)

Michigan’s film incentives program – which former Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm signed into law in April 2008, and current Republican Governor Rick Snyder scaled back by applying a cap of $25 million in 2011 (before halting the program altogether in 2015) – played the role of political football from the get-go.

Supporters argued that the state had to focus on the long-term revenue potential, and get ourselves on Hollywood’s radar (by way of an aggressive 40 percent rebate for film production companies), before we’d see a significant return on our investment. Critics argued the rebates-to-revenue ratio would never tip in Michigan’s favor, and that the longer we stayed on the film incentives path, the more money the state would stand to lose.

In the end, when Snyder was voted into office, the program’s critics won the day, and the program started being phased out. Indeed, the recently released Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was among the last Hollywood productions to be filmed in Michigan, drawn to the Mitten State by incentives.

So now that the film incentives program appears in our collective rearview, it’s a fair time to ask local filmmakers: What legacy, if any, did they leave behind? READ THE REST HERE

Things to do around Ann Arbor this week, April 12-17


Hannah Flam and Joseph Sammour in U-M’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” (Photo by Peter Smith Photography)

Ann Arbor’s Jewish Film Festival continues this week, as does EMU Theatre’s run of “One Man, Two Guvnors” – but there’s tons more on offer, too. Check out all the details below. It’s a little overwhelming. In a good way.

See author Alice McDermott. The U-M English Department Zell Visiting Writers Series presents a reading by this Washington, D.C.-based National Book Award winner (for the 1998 novel, “Charming Billy”). “Someone,” McDermott’s 2013 novel that follows the sharp pains and unexpected joys of an ordinary life, was praised by Booklist as a “keenly observed, fluently humane, quietly enthralling novel of conformity and selfhood.” (McDermott will also be interviewed by author/U-M English professor Peter Ho Davies on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium.) McDermott’s reading happens on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at the UMMA Apse, at 525 S. State St. in Ann Arbor, and the event is free. Continue reading