My latest Art & Soul segment with Lisa Barry on WEMU-FM 89.1 (for May)

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Our latest Art & Soul segment highlights artists involved in two ongoing theater productions: Conor Ryan, the U-M musical theater grad who’s starring in the developmental premiere of “Into the Wild” at Dexter’s Encore Theatre; and David MacGregor, the Michigan playwright whose dark comedy “Vino Veritas” is having a revival at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre. (This also happens to be the Rose’s 100th production, after the company celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.) Listen to the segment here, and check out Ryan singing an excerpt from the song “Alaska” below.

REVIEW: U-M makes the most of flawed stage adaptation of ‘Disney’s The Little Mermaid’

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Halli Toland and Trevor Carr in the Department of Musical Theatre’s production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” (Photo by Peter Smith Photography)

Since the release of Disney’s 1989 animated movie musical, “The Little Mermaid,” feminist moms have found themselves in a bind: it’s nearly impossible to resist Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s witty, charming score; but the story – with its heroine who sacrifices her voice and mermaid identity for a cute guy with whom she’s never even conversed (and then she must somehow earn his love without speaking) – sends some pretty problematic messages, to say the least.

The stage musical adaptation of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” recently staged by U-M’s musical theater department, admirably tries to take direct aim at these issues, with mixed results. Book writer Doug Wright, accompanied by Ashman and Menken’s original score, with additional lyrics by Glenn Slater, invests more scenes and numbers to the courtship of mute Ariel (Halli Toland) and Prince Eric (Trevor Carr), including “One Step Closer,” in which Eric insists, “Who needs words? Dancing beats small talk any day.”

Um … while I appreciate the sentiment and effort – and adore musicals to boot – even I can’t really buy into this. Especially when the male speaker, who can talk, holds all the power. Continue reading

My Pulp preview of Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Shadow Land’ event at Nicola’s Books

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 2.54.56 PM.pngBestselling author Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian) may now be touring to promote her newest novel, The Shadow Land, but when she arrives in Ann Arbor to appear at Nicola’s Books on Monday evening, she may feel like she’s back home.

Why? Because after Kostova earned a spot in the University of Michigan’s renowned MFA program in creative writing, and graduated, she stayed in Ann Arbor until her family moved to Asheville in 2009.

“I’d intended to just stay (in Ann Arbor) for two years, then go back east and resume teaching there,” said Kostova. “But I loved it so much there that I ended staying. My family was there almost eight years. It was a great place to be for a while.” READ THE REST HERE

My Detroit Free Press preview of The Encore Theatre’s ‘Into the Wild’


Conor Ryan stars in “Into the Wild.” (Photo by Michele Anliker)

When he was living in New York, Dan Cooney, a Broadway veteran performer from Michigan who co-founded Dexter’s Encore Musical Theatre Company in 2009, was tapped by former Yale School of Drama classmate Janet Allard for a couple of workshop readings and a demo recording of her brand-new musical, “Into the Wild.”

“And he kept saying, ‘You know, I have a theater in Michigan,’ ” says Allard, who wrote the show’s book and co-wrote its lyrics.

Cooney openly campaigned for Allard and composer and co-lyricist Nikos Tsakalakos to produce a developmental premiere of “Wild” at Encore, “and we took him up on it,” says Allard.

But why? What was the appeal of first getting the show on its feet in a small Michigan town?

“Frankly, because it can be developed out of sight,” says Cooney, who’s now based in Chicago. “This gives the creative team an opportunity to have some valuable time developing the piece without any pressure. Out-of-town tryouts at major venues such as La Jolla Playhouse or the Papermill Playhouse give projects major exposure and a first round of national reviews — oftentimes before they’re ready. … The idea of starting with a place like the Encore is to simply develop the piece, potentially capture some images or clips that might help it move forward and to invite producers that would potentially pick it up. A major regional theater company would be the next obvious step for ‘Into the Wild.’” READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW (Pulp): The Dio’s ‘The Bridges of Madison County’

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Marlene Inman and Jon McHatton in The Dio’s “The Bridges of Madison County.” (Photo by Michele Anliker)

The stage musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County, now making its Michigan premiere at Pinckney’s Dio Theatre, ends its first act with a moment that feels like a key catching in a lock — and in that instant, you feel each person in the audience make a choice: they’re either checking out or they’re all in.

Why? Because the show’s story, set in Iowa in 1965, focuses on a lonely, middle-aged, Italian former war bride (Francesca, played by Marlene Inman) who, while her husband and two teenage children are away for a few days at the Indiana State Fair, finds herself irresistibly drawn into a love affair with an itinerant National Geographic photographer (Robert, played by Jon McHatton) who’s in town to shoot pictures of the local covered bridges.

Often, tales of adultery stack the deck by making the absent spouse abusive or coarse or deceitful, thereby subtly justifying the betrayal and making it easy to sympathize with the partner who strays. But Bridges, perhaps fittingly, takes the more challenging road less traveled, making Francesca’s husband Bud (Andrew Gorney) a decent, upstanding guy who’s simply not particularly engaged or romantic. After nearly 20 years of marriage, this hardly seems a unique or punishable offense.

So how you respond when Francesca leads Robert into the bed she normally shares with Bud — which inevitably feels a little extra back-stabby — will depend on the reach of your empathy for her situation. Francesca must ultimately choose between her own happiness and her family’s, and while some audience members may feel she only has herself to blame, others will think, “If someone suddenly makes you feel awake and alive, in the midst of sleepwalking through life, it can’t be easy to push that away and simply say ‘no.’” READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp recap of True Blue, U-M’s bicentennial celebration show


“Grimm” star Jacqueline Toboni and and “Glee” star Darren Criss helped emcee Saturday night’s True Blue celebration at Hill Auditorium. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Photography)

Saturday evening’s sold-out, star-studded True Blue! A Tribute to Michigan event at Hill Auditorium, celebrating U-M’s bicentennial, began like Michigan football games do: with the sonorous voice of Carl Grapentine.

But instead of introducing the Michigan Marching Band, Grapentine introduced two of the evening’s emcees, Glee star Darren Criss (’09) and Grimm star Jacqueline Toboni (’14), who welcomed musical theater majors to the stage to perform a special version of “The Victors,” arranged by A.J. Holmes (’11); and theater majors, who delivered a rap about U-M’s founding and growth — wherein we learned that the school was originally called Catholepistemiad, or University, of Michigania. (Thankfully, the name didn’t stick. Imagine spelling that in the stadium.) READ THE REST HERE

My Literary Mama review of Julie Riddle’s memoir, ‘The Solace of Stones’

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 2.28.27 PM.pngThe title (and greenery-soaked cover) of Julie Riddle’s new memoir, The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness, suggest a New Age, contemporary take on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; and because Americans tend to romanticize the natural world’s power to heal, one might approach the book with hopes of having this idea confirmed.

But The Solace of Stones almost immediately punctures that expectation by revealing that Riddle, despite spending her childhood days playing in the unpopulated woods of Montana, spent two decades unable to name, understand, or escape the emotional fallout from a sexual trauma she experienced at age five. Her family, meanwhile, unaware of the incident, jumped feet-first into her parents’ dream of building a log house in the untamed wilderness of northwestern Montana.

Readers journey with Riddle’s family to realize this way-tougher-than-it-sounds fantasy, inspired by a book titled How to Live in the Woods on Pennies a Day. We learn about the intensive labor and time that goes into building a log house, including the first step: constructing a basement that will be the family’s underground home for three years while the rest of the house gradually takes shape. READ THE REST HERE

My Ann Arbor Observer story about a one-woman art series/residency called The Hosting

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The Hosting’s Instagram feed is one way Anya Klapischak reaches out to artists and potential attendees.

“I envision myself as a dragon protecting golden eggs in a cave,” says Anya Klapischak.

Klapischak, twenty-five, felt frustrated by the local art scene after earning a BFA from the U-M Stamps School of Art & Design in 2015. So Klapischak, who works as a server at the Ravens Club and Old Town Tavern, founded her own underground art “happening/residency.” It’s called the Hosting, because she hosts the event in her apartment in a house on N. State St.

“Everybody leaves Ann Arbor,” says Klapischak, who grew up in New Jersey and studied inter-arts performance at U-M. “If you’re an artist, and you don’t move to L.A. or New York, a lot of people leave to go to Detroit.

“There’s a big exodus right now. Ann Arbor isn’t cool anymore, because nobody can afford it, which is sad to see. There are a handful of grassroots places like Arbor Vitae and Canterbury House, but otherwise, speaking to my demographic, there isn’t a whole lot going on. For a long time, I thought I’d have to leave here to make my dreams come true.”

But a funny thing happened while Klapischak waited tables: she talked with locals fighting to save historic buildings and served the mayor lunch and generally got to know the townies.

“Only now, looking back, have I realized that these last five years, I’ve been doing the work of making myself part of the community,” says Klapischak. “I don’t think a lot of people who come here to go to school ever get that feeling of belonging. Ann Arbor’s a transitory place, and it always will be, but I finally realized that this is my place.” READ THE REST HERE

Ann Arbor Summer Festival announces 2017 Mainstage season


Ira Glass’ new show is on the 2017 Ann Arbor Summer Festival Mainstage roster. (Photo by Jesse Michener)

PRESS RELEASE: The Ann Arbor Summer Festival is pleased to announce its headlining indoor Mainstage performances for the 2017 season.

Highlights include Diana Krall, Pink Martini, Rhiannon Giddens, Doktor Kaboom!, Colin Mochrie & Brad Sherwood, Ira Glass and The Capitol Steps!

More announcements and the full Top of the Park schedule coming soon. The festival’s Mainstage performances take place in The Power Center for the Performing Arts and at Hill Auditorium on the campus of the University of Michigan.

Festival Ticket Information

Tickets On Sale:
Thursday, April 6th                  at 9 am          Festival Donors of $1000+
Friday, April 7th                        at 9 am          Festival Donors of $100+
Monday, April 10th                  at 9 am          General public

By Phone:         (734) 764-2538
In Person:          Michigan League Ticket Office, 911 N. University Ave, Ann Arbor MI 48109

Festival Venue Information:
Power Center for the Performing Arts: 121 Fletcher Street, Ann Arbor, MI
Hill Auditorium: 825 N University Ave, Ann Arbor, MI
Top of the Park: 915 E Washington St, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

A detailed schedule of ticketed Mainstage performances follows. Continue reading

REVIEW ( ‘Vino Veritas’ at the Purple Rose Theatre

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Kate Thomsen and Aphrodite Nikolovski in “Vino Veritaas” at the Purple Rose Theatre. (Photo by Sean Carter Photography)

“You’re different from the man I married,” a character says in the Purple Rose Theatre’s revival of David MacGregor’s Vino Veritas – and that’s before two suburban couples have thrown back glasses of an exotic Peruvian wine that acts as a truth serum.

Yet, the line reveals the dirty little secret of marriage, doesn’t it? People don’t stop changing just because you’ve reached adulthood, and rings are exchanged, and promises are made. Indeed, one of the primary challenges of a maturing marriage – particularly when parenting is added into the mix – is whether your own still-twisting life path, and that of your partner’s, intersect often enough that you still feel you’re on the same map.

In Vino, photography studio owners Lauren (Kate Thomsen) and Phil (David Bendena), who’d previously lived a more daring, globetrotting lifestyle, are meeting up with their best friends – neighbors Ridley (Alex Leydenfrost), a doctor, and Claire (Aphrodite Nikolovski), a housewife –before heading to a Halloween party. This pre-party turns into something far more riveting, though, when Lauren brings out a special wine from the couple’s recent trip, and each of the four adults must decide how much truth they can handle, both from themselves and each other. READ THE REST HERE