REVIEW: Kickshaw’s ‘Or,’ is a smart, funny primer on pioneering playwright Aphra Behn

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Mary Dilworth and Vanessa Sawson in Kickshaw Theatre’s “Or,”. (Sean Carter Photography)

When a character in Kickshaw Theatre’s production of Liz Duffy Adams’ “Or,” observed that “freedom, especially for women, is only possible under an enlightened monarch,” a shudder made its way through my body.

Guess I’m just a little extra tense these days, for some reason?

Yes. I suppose I am. But the moment also points to how timely Adams’ 2009 “neo-Restoration” comedy often feels, despite its historical setting. Focused on the pioneering seventeenth century playwright Aphra Behn (Vanessa Sawson), who’d previously worked as a political spy, the 80 minute play begins with Behn in a debtors’ prison’s private cell, writing a letter (in verse) to King Charles II to plead her case. Through this letter, we learn that London’s been ravaged by fire, war, and Plague, and that she landed in jail because her work for the beleaguered government – perhaps not surprisingly – went uncompensated.

However, when an amorous, mysterious visitor wearing a mask (Charles, played by Dan Helmer) arrives in her cell, everything changes. Aphra’s debts are paid; she regains her freedom; and she plans to focus her time and talents on writing plays for the theaters recently re-opened by Charles (they’d been shut down by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans). The rest of the play thus unfolds in Aphra’s workspace, where she’s visited by one of the first and most successful stage actresses of the day, Nell Gwynne (only men had performed on stage previously), played by Mary Dilworth; King Charles II; patroness Lady Davenant (Dilworth); a former lover from her spy days, William Scot (Helmer), who may or may not have information about a plot to kill King Charles; and elderly servant Maria (Dilworth).

“I can write and chat at the same time,” Aphra tells Nell early on. It’s a good thing, because the playwright’s supposed to write an entirely new stage drama in the course of one night for Lady Davenant, despite all the amorous and cloak-and-dagger goings-on. Continue reading

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My Destination Ann Arbor story about why you can sometimes see brand new musicals (like ‘Shel’) in Ann Arbor first

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A U-M student costume designer gives notes to the cast of “Shel” during a break in rehearsal. (Photo by Jenn McKee)

On one night in mid-February, I watched a production of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s song cycle “Edges” at Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House, then rushed over to the Power Center’s rehearsal room to observe a run-through of a U-M senior’s original musical, titled “Shel.”

I couldn’t shake the sense that the pairing was more than a coincidence.

Why? Because songwriting super-duo and U-M musical theater grads Pasek and Paul (’06) – who have recently won Oscars (“La La Land”), Tonys (“Dear Evan Hansen”), Golden Globes (“The Greatest Showman”), and Grammys (“Dear Evan Hansen”) – wrote and premiered “Edges,” their first major artistic collaboration, at KCH while they were students in Ann Arbor. Noah Kieserman’s “Shel: A Historically Fictionalized Musical,” meanwhile, staged as an independent production at the U-M’s Duderstadt Center on February 22-23, offered several lucky locals (who snapped up every ticket available) first crack at seeing yet another musical, also starring U-M students, being born.

Opportunities like this are unique to an area that’s both relatively small, compared to urban centers, and far removed from the theater world’s capitol, New York City. But they stem in large part from U-M’s musical theater department being consistently ranked among the top programs in the country, so that many of the most promising young theater talents out there find their way to U-M.

This is how Benj (from Pennsylvania) met Justin (from Connecticut). READ THE REST HERE

My We Love Ann Arbor story about U-M senior’s world premiere original musical, ‘Shel’

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Cast members in rehearsal for “Shel,” including the show’s composer/lyricist/book writer Noah Kieserman. (Photo by Jenn McKee)

Normally, selling tickets for a new show that no one’s heard of is slow-going, to say the least.

But U-M musical theater senior Noah Kieserman’s two world premiere performances of “Shel: A Historically Fictionalized Musical,” happening Thursday and Friday at the Duderstadt Center’s Video Studio, sold out in three hours when tickets went on sale Jan. 26.

Yes, the studio is a relatively small venue – about 65 seats – but even so, excitement surrounding Kieserman’s Hopwood Award-winning exploration of the life of children’s poet/songwriter Shel Silverstein is pretty high. The student production team has even arranged to live-stream “Shel” to a nearby room with four HD screens, in order to accommodate 30 additional people.

Though “Shel” was workshopped for two weeks in Washington D.C. last summer – a group of high school students performed readings and some partially staged scenes – this week’s independent U-M campus production marks the first fully-staged version of the show.

And not only was it easy to find an audience for “Shel”; it’s also been easy to find student artists who want to be involved. READ THE REST HERE

My latest WEMU-FM Art & Soul segment, with Lisa Barry and special guest Tori Tomalia

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-9-21-28-amFinally got back into the WEMU studio to talk about what’s happening in local theater, as well as Ron White and Weird Al Yankovic’s upcoming Ann Arbor shows. We also talked to Pointless Brewery and Theatre co-founder/owner Tori Tomalia about improv comedy and other offerings on tap at the venue. Listen to this month’s eight minute segment here.

My Destination Ann Arbor story about two Michigan-themed plays at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre

purpleroseChelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre Company, founded by the town’s resident movie/TV/Broadway star Jeff Daniels, opened in 1991 with the aim of “growing” and producing new plays alongside American classics.

Giving voice to the experience of living in the Midwest is certainly part of that picture – “When I started out in theater in the 1970s, I thought all plays were about neurotic people living in New York,” said longtime Rose artistic director Guy Sanville – but sometimes the Rose’s roster of plays gets even more specific, focusing on Michigan’s history and challenges.

The Rose’s current professional season, for example, features new work from three Michigan playwrights (Daniels is one, along with David MacGregor and Jeff Duncan), and two of those three are telling Michigan stories: “Flint,” the Rose’s current production, which is set in the time just before the town made national headlines in 2016 because of its water crisis; and “Willow Run,” which tells a tale of a handful of women who went to work at Ypsilanti’s bomber plant during World War II. READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW: Penny Seats Theatre Company’s ‘Edges’ will take you back to your 20s

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Penny Seats Theatre Company’s cast for “Edges.” (Photo by Lauren London)

While watching the Penny Seats Theatre Company’s production of the song cycle “Edges” at Kerrytown Concert House, it’s hard to escape the feeling that its lyricist/composer team, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – who wrote “Edges” while they were musical theater students at U-M (’06), and have since gone on to win Tonys (“Dear Evan Hansen”), Grammys (“Dear Evan Hansen”), and Oscars (“La La Land”) – had uncanny instincts from the start.

How else to explain the hilarious durability of the 2005 show’s most famous and beloved number, “Facebook Song,” when the wunderkind duo could have just as easily written an ode to MySpace, or Friendster, or any of the other once-popular, also-ran social media early contenders?

No, these Wolverines clearly had their finger on the pulse from the get-go; but they also realized that writing songs from their perspective – as young men stumbling into adulthood – had value, and that musical theater songs aren’t simply about conveying a feeling. They’re about storytelling, character, and having those elements work together to arrive somewhere new by song’s end. Continue reading

REVIEW: Jeff Daniels’ ‘Flint’ at the Purple Rose Theatre aims high, falls a little short

horizontal-ad_flint.jpgIf there’s one thing that the two economically struggling couples in Jeff Daniels’ newest world premiere play agree on, it’s this: “Flint is about money.”

Indeed. Though you might come to the Purple Rose Theatre expecting to see a story about the (still ongoing) water crisis, Daniels sets “Flint” in the time just before the city made national headlines, in order to explore how the beleaguered city’s history played a prominent role in its tragic present.

Set in the home of former-auto-line-worker-turned-Walmart-clerk Mitchell (Lynch R. Travis) and his wife, church bus driver Olivia (Casaundra Freeman), “Flint” takes place over the course of an unseasonably hot September afternoon in 2014. Mitchell’s friend and neighbor Eddie (David Bendena), once a GM line manager, is still waiting for a job worthy of his talents to come along, while his wife Karen (Rhiannon Ragland), now deemed too old to go back to stripping, worries about how she and her daughters will continue to survive without a steady source of income. Continue reading

My Concentrate story about Detroit Street Filling Station’s controversial re-launch

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 1.03.29 PM.pngIn recent years the media have reported many stories of people who suffered significant professional consequences because of statements they made on social media platforms. But just after Thanksgiving in Ann Arbor, some laid-off workers took to social media to air grievances against their former employer – and what began as an internal business matter quickly became a community conversation.

 Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo had opened Detroit Street Filling Station as an upscale vegan eatery just three months before the November incident. Engelbert and Panozzo, who also own both locations of the Lunch Room, had determined by Turkey Day that DSFS wasn’t financially viable and that they needed to recalibrate the restaurant’s look, atmosphere, price point, menu, and staff in order to stay in business.

So on Saturday, November 25th, at around 9:30 p.m., as the night’s last customers lingered in the restaurant, DSFS’ owners reportedly gathered their on-duty managers outside and told them that the restaurant would be closing indefinitely, in hopes of reopening with a new concept.

Following this meeting, DSFS closed up for two days. Engelbert and Panozzo scrambled to make the space look and feel more casual, and worked with cooks to develop a new menu, recipe books, prep sheets, and produce shopping lists. Meanwhile, a press release about DSFS’ new vision was sent out.

Some former DSFS employees received an invitation via email to stay on at DSFS 2.0, while eight others (two managers, four cooks, and two servers) received a termination of employment message later shared on DSFS’ Facebook “reviews” page. The email stated that Engelbert and Panozzo were reconfiguring to “a smaller, more casual concept that will require far less staffing,” informed employees that their health insurance would continue through December, and encouraged them to ask for a job reference.

The former DSFS employee who shared the email on social media was Jamie Seely, a server. “I didn’t know anything was wrong,” Seely says. “I got the email that night, after I’d worked a busy Saturday night. … I’ve never been contacted (about a layoff) through email before. I’ve always been sat down and talked to.” READ THE REST HERE

My CultureSource story about the DSO’s French Festival

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Cyrille Aimée will perform on Valentine’s Day at the DSO’s Cube.

Ooh lá lá! Everything’s coming up French Festival this month at Orchestra Hall (and The Cube) as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra kicks off almost three weeks of magnifique programming that will celebrate Gallic art, music and culture.

The DSO’s French Festival, running February 6-25, marks a thematic expansion of the organization’s previous winter events, which have, for the past four years, been focused on a single composer each year (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Mozart).

“I decided I wanted to do a country this year, and one that is not so well known for its symphonic repertoire,” DSO music director and conductor Leonard Slatkin said in a past interview. “The French didn’t write so many symphonies. For the most part, they wrote other kinds of music.”

But Slatkin knows from French classical music, having formerly worked as music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon for six seasons. And the esteemed conductor will take the podium for six different French Festival events: a concert showcasing the music of Maurice Ravel (February 8-9, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano) and another featuring Camille Saint-Saëns (February 10-11, with George Li, piano); a show titled “An American in Paris,” which will not only include George Gershwin’s seminal work, but also what could be viewed as its inverse, Darius Milhaud’s “A Frenchman in New York” (February 16, with Michelle and Christina Naughton, piano); “Carnival of the Animals,” which highlights Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and more (Februrary 17-18, with Michelle and Christina Naughton, piano); Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” (February 23-24, with Renaud Capuçon, violin); and Claude Debussy’s “Le Mer & Faun” (February 22-23, with Renaud Capuçon, violin).

Chris HarringtonThese Orchestra Hall concerts are far from the only things on offer during the DSO’s French Festival, however. Chris Harrington oversees programming for the DSO’s alternative performance space, The Cube, which focuses on hosting events that are “relevant and accessible at a price point that’s affordable.” READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW: Williamston Theatre’s ‘Our Lady of Poison’ is quick, but not painless

poison.jpgWilliamston Theatre seems to have an uncanny knack for timing. In advance of the 2016 Presidential election, WT’s team put “1984” in its season lineup, and by the time the show hit Williamston’s stage in 2017, George Orwell’s dystopian classic was atop the fiction bestseller list again; and now, in the midst of a cultural conversation (fueled by #MeToo) about gender and power, WT happens to be offering the world premiere production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s “Our Lady of Poison.”

Not that the play would seem, at first blush, to be all that timely. Set in 1659 Rome, “Poison” focuses on three women: Giulia Tofana (Janet Hayle), a beloved, unapologetically bawdy apothecary, who occasionally supplies abused local women with poison disguised as holy water; her daughter Girolama (Dani Cochrane), a world-weary young widow who works alongside Giulia; and Daniella Presti (Maeyson Menzel), the young wife of a nobleman who seeks an escape hatch from her life.

Giulia is understandably wary when Daniella arrives at the shop, without notice or introduction, asking to purchase poison. For Giulia has survived her many years as a businesswoman precisely because she is cautious, smart, and stealthy about selling her fatal concoctions. But when Daniella and Girolama press the noblewoman’s case further, Giulia invites Daniella to work in the shop for a month, so that she might know her better. In the interim, though, Daniella and Girolama grow close while working side-by-side, and Girolama makes a choice that puts them all three women in grave danger. Continue reading