My review of Encore Theatre’s ‘Assassins’

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Matthew Brennan as Lee Harvey Oswald in Encore Theatre’s “Assassins.”

Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, now being staged at Dexter’s Encore Theatre, explores the more nightmarish aspects of the American Dream: for if we’re told from birth that we can “get ahead”– both professionally and personally  – by working hard, and yet we toil and labor and get nowhere, we’ll inevitably feel cheated, angry, and bitter.

But when a country breaks your heart, at whom do you aim your rage? For the 9 historic characters at the heart of Assassins, the answer is simple: a U.S. President. And while some are successful in their attempt, and others are not, they all transcend their respective eras to gather together in this show as a perverse kind of secret society. Included in the group is its famed forefather, stage actor John Wilkes Booth (David Moan); McKinley assassin Leon Czologsz (Dan Johnson); Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau (Daniel A. Helmer); FDR’s would-be killer Giuseppe Zangara (Ari Axelrod); Lee Harvey Oswald (Matt Brennan); would-be Nixon assassin Samuel Byck (Keith Allan Kalinowski); failed Ford assassins Sara Jane Moore (Sarah Briggs) and Manson protege Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Carly Snyder); and would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley (James Fischer).

If this sounds like pretty strange territory for a musical, it is – but in the best way possible. There’s still no other show quite like Assassins, more than 25 years after its Off-Broadway debut; and in addition to Sondheim’s terrific score (and John Weidman’s darkly humorous book), you get fascinating, brief glimpses into our history, and you’re also challenged to relate to people whose actions you’re never asked to excuse. READ THE REST HERE

Things to do around Ann Arbor this week: A2 Book Festival, comic John Heffron and more


Brazilian vocalist Bebel Gilberto has an Ann Arbor Summer Festival main stage show at the Power Center on Saturday.

Theater production runs of Shakespeare in the Arb’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and Encore Theatre’s “Assassins” continue this week, as does the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Top of the Park at U-M’s Ingalls Mall, with tons of free live music in the evenings on Tuesdays-Sundays, and outdoor movies at dusk on Sundays and Tuesdays-Thursdays.

But this week’s list begins with a community gathering to mourn those murdered in Orlando this past weekend.

Requiem for Orlando. On Tuesday evening, there will be a community performance of Mozart’s Requiem to honor the victims of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The concert is free; no tickets are required. Through a social media and email campaign launched on Sunday, graduate student Austin Stewart and Kevin Fitzgerald, both alums of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, were able to bring together 50 instrumentalists and more than 135 singers to participate in the concert. Fitzgerald will conduct the performers, which include SMTD students, faculty and alumni, as well as representatives of many local orchestras, such as the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Rochester Hills symphonies, and the Michigan Philharmonic. “In the aftermath of the tragedy in Orlando, there has been a lot of discussion among friends about building sanctuaries,” Stewart said. “We are striving to do that by creating a safe space with music, by creating a tapestry of voices representing every race, creed, sexuality and background. This is a timeless piece that expresses the full range of emotions that come with grief and healing. Our hope is for the concert to build solidarity and strength through music and communal reflection.” Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave. in Ann Arbor.

A2SF Main Stage shows. On Wednesday, Gregory Alan Isakov and The Ghost Orchestra take the stage at Ann Arbor’s Power Center. Plaintive and poetic, Isakov crafts stunning, sepia-toned compositions that tell a story of miles and landscapes, captivating and haunting his listeners. With nods to Leonard Cohen and Andrew Bird, his lush arrangements lend themselves to a fuller sound, and he will be accompanied by his band, as well as a mini-symphonic ensemble. In a tour that includes headlining Red Rocks and The Kennedy Center, this is a rare opportunity to see a unique performance with one of indie folk’s most admired new singer/songwriters. Poet Andrea Gibson opens the show, with a set that may include mature themes. Wednesday at 8 pm at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher in Ann Arbor, and tickets cost $27-$40.

On Saturday night, A2SF presents Bebel Gilberto at the Power Center. This popular Brazilian singer, daughter of the legendary Brazilian singer-songwriter and guitarist Joo Gilberto, weaves sultry pop and soft electronica into her sophisticated bossa nova and samba repertoire. Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher Rd. in Ann Arbor. Tickets cost $30-$35, available in advance at or 734-764-2538.

Frontier Ruckus plays Sonic Lunch. Popular experimental bluegrass-based folk-rock ensemble from Lake Orion plays a free show on Thursday at noon at Liberty Plaza, near the intersection of Liberty and Division in Ann Arbor.  Continue reading

My preview of Encore Theatre’s ‘Assassins’ for We Love Dexter

assassins.pngEven though Matthew Brennan is directing, choreographing and performing in Encore Musical Theatre’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” – which focuses on nine men and women who have tried (sometimes successfully) to kill a U.S. President – he’s having trouble convincing his Aunt Eileen to give the show a chance.

“I recently saw her in Louisville, and she said, ‘What’s next?’ and I said, ‘Assassins,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I’ll sit that one out,’” said Brennan. “ … But (the show’s) not at all a glorification of these people. It does not apologize or make light of what they did, and it’s not un-American in any way. (The show’s) just been misconstrued, … and really, it’s written in such an even-handed way. The show doesn’t vilify these people – they do that to themselves. Yet we still find a way of relating to them.”

“Assassins” first premiered Off-Broadway in 1990; and while the show has since become a favorite of many Sondheim and non-Sondheim fans alike, it initially received a lukewarm critical reception.

“It wasn’t that it was groundbreaking in terms of structure, or the piece itself, but the material is not your usual fare for a musical,” said Brennan. “ … And the more modern assassins have a different significance for the audience. It’s more difficult to see Squeaky Fromme or Lee Harvey Oswald on stage if you lived in that time and remember seeing them. With something like ‘Sweeney Todd,’ we can laugh it off as a penny dreadful Victorian myth or folklore, but this is our American folklore. Yes, it’s pretend, because there’s singing and dancing, but we all also have a more visceral response to it.” READ THE REST HERE

Things to do around Ann Arbor this week: see Laith Al-Saadi, Shakespeare in the Arb, Top of the Park and more

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Fans can see Ann Arbor native Laith Al-Saadi perform at Sonic Lunch this week, fresh off his successful fun on NBC’s “The Voice”!

Cinetopia International Film Festival continues in Ann Arbor, Detroit and Dearborn this week, as do theater production runs at EMU (“The Last Five Years”) and Theatre Nova (“Katherine”). But all kinds of things are kicking off this week, including the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and Shakespeare in the Arb. See all the details below.

Book/author event highlights. New Yorker contributor and arts editor Michael Schulman will discuss his new book, “Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep.” Monday from 7-8:30 p.m. in the Ann Arbor downtown library’s multipurpose room (lower level), at 343 S. Fifth Ave. in Ann Arbor. Free.

New Baltimore, Michigan writer Tom Stanton will discuss his new book, “Terror in the City of Champions: Murder, Baseball and the Secret Society That Shocked Depression-Era Detroit,” about the Black Legion, a secret terrorist organization that flourished in Detroit in the mid-1930s, when the Tigers won a World Series, the Lions won an NFL title, and the Red Wings won a Stanley Cup. Signing. Monday at 7 p.m. at Nicola’s Books, at 2513 Jackson, in the Westgate shopping center in Ann Arbor. Free.

Finally, on Tuesday, Ann Arbor’s Julie Lawson Timmer will read from “Untethered,” her new novel about a college professor and stepmom whose parental rights are challenged when her husband dies in a car accident. Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Literati, 124 E. Washington in Ann Arbor. Free.  Continue reading

My Cinetopia International Film Festival preview, via IXITI


“Captain Fantastic,” starring Viggo Mortensen, plays at the 2016 Cinetopia International Film Festival.

In 2012, Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater launched the inaugural Cinetopia International Film Festival, which screened about 40 films over the course of four days. The fest’s planners aimed to bring several of the best new features and documentaries from the world’s most prestigious film festivals to Southeast Michigan so that local movie buffs could check them out in a festival atmosphere, too.

Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, Cinetopia has grown in many ways. It now runs for 10 days, from June 3rd through 12th, and more than 50 films will play across more than 120 screenings. Those viewings expand beyond Ann Arbor venues to include those in Detroit, Dearborn and Bloomfield Hills (including The Henry Ford Giant Screen Experience, new this year). And in terms of audience attendance, there has been about a 40 percent increase each year.

“We’re a long way away from maturity, but we’re happy with the growth so far,” said Michigan Theater Executive Director and CEO Russ Collins. “It needed to grow pretty aggressively. … We knew that for (Cinetopia) to be viable—and this depends on the scale of what you want to do, of course—we needed to draw at least 20,000 attendees. … Last year, we got to that 20,000 number, but in order for that to sustain itself, we need to keep growing. … The majority of the financial resources for the festival comes from sponsorships, and that’s been really gratifying. We’ve had good sponsorship support, and that’s key to keeping things growing.” READ THE REST HERE