My latest WEMU-FM 89.1 Art & Soul segment with Lisa Barry (and ElvisFest Director Mary Decker)

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 4.46.14 PM.pngThis week, Art and Soul is about the performing arts in our area.  89.1 WEMU’S Lisa Barry is joined by local writer and reviewer Jenn McKee and the director of the Michigan ElvisFest organization Mary Decker to talk about some of the performing arts opportunities happening now and in the near future. Listen to the eight minute segment here.


REVIEW (Pulp): Encore Theatre’s ‘West Side Story’ looks slick, and feels a bit too timely

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 8.30.50 AM.png

The cast of Encore Theatre’s “West Side Story.” (Photo by Michele Anliker Photography)

Not all that long ago, West Side Story seemed kind of quaint.

We’d all watch this classic, 1950s stage musical twist on Romeo and Juliet, built on the talent of four iconic artists (Jerome Robbins, concept; Arthur Laurents, book; Leonard Bernstein, music; Stephen Sondheim, lyrics), and think, “So many of the characters in this story are openly, unapologetically racist and anti-immigrant! I’m so glad we’ve evolved from this.”

Cut to the recent travel ban; and campaign promises about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; and white supremacists proudly marching in Charlottesville last summer; and the U.S.’s short-lived, limited aid for American citizens living in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria last fall; and the children of detained migrant families being separated from their parents.

So “West Side Story” — playing through August 12 at Dexter’s Encore Theatre — which had always felt a little dated to me, seems almost unnervingly timely now. READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW (Pulp): Penny Seats’ outdoor production of ‘The Gravedigger’ offers fresh exploration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 1.50.41 PM.png

David Galido and Robert Schorr in Penny Seats Theatre Company’s West Park production of Joseph Zettlemaier’s “The Gravedigger: A Frankenstein Story.”

Penny Seats Theatre Company’s two-show 2018 summer season — cheekily called “Hail to the Victors” — consists of two different takes on Mary Shelley’s classic horror story. Next month, PSTC will present Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan’s stage musical adaptation of Brooks’ 1974 film comedy Young Frankenstein, but the company first kicked things off this past weekend with a two-hour production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger, directed by Julia Glander and Lauren M. London.

The story takes place in the 1700s, and begins as Victor Frankenstein (Daniel A. Helmer) is purchasing body parts from a drunk, limping gravedigger named Kurt (Robert Schorr) — but this is merely a preface to the main story, which is focused on the creature Victor creates with these pieces.

This monster, who gives himself the name Anton (David Galido), seeks nothing but death in Kurt’s graveyard, but instead finds unexpected friendships — both with Kurt and an outcast gypsy named Nadya (Annie Dilworth). By digging for Kurt by night, Anton starts to imagine, for the first time in his short life, how he might forge an existence that features both companionship and moments of joy. But when Victor comes looking to destroy Anton — who, when immediately abandoned by his horrified maker at his “birth,” angrily murdered all the people Victor loved — the two must each face the consequences of their actions, in the form of each other.

Penny Seats’ summer productions happen outdoors, in Ann Arbor’s West Park (in front of the band shell) — and perhaps not surprisingly, some plays succeed more in this setting than others. The Gravedigger, particularly as night falls, works better than most. Yes, part of that is due to Tyler Chinn’s lovely lighting design (which obviously becomes more critical in the final scenes), and Will Myers’ sound design — three cheers for good mics and a well-calibrated sound system, so we can hear the dialogue! — but it’s also because, given the story’s historic horror vibe, The Gravedigger ends up achieving the feel of a ghost story told ’round the campfire. (Just remember to bring a blanket or jacket along; the temperature drops pretty dramatically with the sun.) READ THE REST HERE

Platonic Theater Date Review: Detroit Repertory Theatre’s ‘Ghost Gardens’ explores loss and hope


Aral Gribble, Jenaya Jones Reynolds, and Leah Smith in Detroit Repertory Theatre’s production of “Ghost Gardens.”

As the final installment of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s Platonic Theater Date review series, the two critics attended the same performance of Detroit Repertory Theatre’s “Ghost Gardens” on June 7th, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. (“Ghost Gardens” runs through July 1.) Here’s their joint review:

New life, especially in the face of hard circumstances, always offers hope.

This is the reason people are happy to see baby pictures in their social media feed. They provide break from the anger, posing, and tragic news that otherwise clog our daily lives; and they suggest that no matter what, life will out. Steven Simoncic’s play “Ghost Gardens,” now playing at Detroit Repertory Theatre (directed by Lynch Travis), builds its story around this notion.

Set in a Detroit neighborhood that stands in the shadow of a old, chemical-spewing plant, “Gardens” begins with Lorelie (Leah Smith) at her baby’s grave on what would have been her tenth birthday. Lorelie’s been trying to get pregnant again for the intervening years, without success, and she’s not the only one. No children have been born in the neighborhood in years. So when Lorelie, on this tenth anniversary, announces that she’s pregnant, her underemployed husband Tryg (Aral Gribble), sassy best friend Myra (Jenaya Jones Reynolds), ailing mother Helen (Linda Rabin Hammell), and the local pimp-turned-preacher Powder (Cornell Markham) rejoice.

Indeed, a man named Lonnie (Will Bryson), just released from prison, who’s now working alongside Powder, hatches a plan to use social media to raise money and hopes around Lorelie’s good news. But as Tryg continues to sometimes go missing for days at a time, and Helen grows sicker – despite her new, blossoming relationship with Powder – Lorelie begins to buckle under the pressure of her community’s collective hopes. Continue reading

REVIEW: A2CT’s ‘Heathers: The Musical’ does justice to the ultimate teen black comedy


Amy VanDyke, Samantha Torres, Chloe Grisa in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of “Heathers: The Musical.”

Way back in my high school days, I remember being told that one day, I’d come to view those years as among the best of my life.

Uh … seriously? What was it about high school that I was expected to miss, exactly? The guys who barked at me as I walked down the hallway from my locker, or the girls who openly criticized my wardrobe? Perhaps the rampant acne, or the hormones? Or the invisibility that was maddeningly paired with bursts of intense scrutiny?

No, I was more than ready to leave high school in 1989 – which was, coincidentally, the year that the cult dark comedy movie “Heathers” (starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater) was released. As college freshmen, my friends and I watched video cassette copies of it in our dorm rooms and quoted from it with abandon.

So color me stoked when I learned that the satiric teen film had been adapted into a stage musical (by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy) that premiered in Los Angeles, and then Off-Broadway, in 2013; and Ann Arbor Civic Theatre recently provided locals with a pretty great opportunity to check out the irreverently filthy, witty, violent, and bittersweet show for themselves.

“Heathers”’ story focuses on Veronica (Emily Courcy), a wryly smart but overlooked girl who one day uses her forgery talents to help get the school’s three most popular girls, all named Heather, out of trouble. Shortly after Veronica’s invited to join the power clique, she meets a caustic, Baudelaire-quoting, trench-coat-wearing new guy named JD (Andrew Buckshaw), who intrigues her. But at a party, when the Alpha Heather (Samantha Torres) is about to humiliate Veronica’s old misfit friend Martha (Zoe VanSlooten), Veronica intervenes, placing herself in Alpha Heather’s sights.

The next morning, Veronica goes to Heather’s house to grovel, but when JD distracts her, she accidentally serves Heather toxic drain cleaner instead of the requested hangover cure. JD and Veronica end up forging a suicide note, along with Heather’s copy of “The Bell Jar” – but things only spin further out of control from there, as JD’s dark plan to make the world a better place shifts into high gear.

It should go without saying that A2CT’s production, directed by Ron Baumanis, was decidedly not appropriate for kids. With a spirited (but empoweringly feminist) on-stage sex scene between Veronica and JD (“Dead Girl Walking”), and the kind of puffed up, dirty, baseless sexual bragging that some high school boys will always do (“Blue (Reprise)” and “Blue Playoff”) – not to mention Hayden Reboulet, who, as Ram, appeared wholly content to wear nothing but a pair of tighty-whities throughout the second act – the show stays true to its edgy roots. Continue reading

My Concentrate story about 10 of Ann Arbor’s most interesting houses


Ann Arbor’s “castle house” on Linwood. (Photo by Jenn McKee)

We can all probably think of at least one Ann Arbor house that catches our eye every time we walk, bike, or drive past.

We may stare because they’re particularly ornate, oddly shaped, historical, or architecturally striking. They make us wonder what life lived within their (sometimes peculiar) walls might feel like, and whether a house has the subtle power to shape its occupants.

 Who knows? But to explore this notion further, we’ve put together this list of Ann Arbor’s 10 most interesting houses – according to us, of course. Let us know your favorites in the comments. READ THE REST HERE

My Destination Ann Arbor feature about Milan Coffee Works


Mary Racette, owner Matthew Bjurman, and Amber Sumner at Milan Coffee Works. (Photo by Jenn McKee)

They say that adversity reveals character – so Milan Coffee Works’ recent, good-humored response to a coffee-batch-gone-wrong just might make the quirky, little, off-the-beaten-path cafe your new favorite hang.

“We bagged (the coffee) up and sold it at a discount, calling it ‘Oops Roast,’” said MCW founder/owner Matthew Bjurman, who Instagrammed a photo of the brown paper bags bearing personalized Sharpie messages like, “It’s better than bad! And it’s organic!” and “Don’t go falling in love with it. It will never be roasted the same way again.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) these witty warnings, the “one of a kind” roast promptly sold out.

More broadly, since opening its doors in in 2014, MCW – which not only serves but also roasts artisan coffee on-site (in a machine called Amelia, after the pioneering female pilot) – has become a popular stop for locals who pretty much have a standing daily order; cyclists from Ann Arbor; and occasionally truckers on their way to Ohio, or car repair customers who wander in from down the street.

“One of our big things is the bourbon latte,” said Amber Sumner, a barista who started work at MCW last September. “It’s the reason I started coming here as a customer. … It’s one of those things where, if you have it, and you like the taste of it, it’s hard to find in other places.” READ THE REST HERE

Platonic Theater Date Review: Roustabout Theatre Troupe debuts with ‘All Childish Things: The Special Edition’ – but is it one with the Force?

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 10.18.23 AM.pngAs part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same performance of Roustabout Theatre Troupe’s “All Childish Things: The Special Edition” on June 1, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

If you recently felt a tremor in the Force, something you haven’t felt since … well, the last time Joseph Zettelmaier’s “All Childish Things” was produced … it’s likely because the Roustabout Theatre Troupe (co-founded by Zettelmaier, Joey Albright and Anna Simmons) has mounted a new “special edition” of the “Star Wars” collectibles heist comedy that runs through June 17 at Milan’s McComb Performing Arts Center.

“Childish” marks the first full production staged by Roustabout, and like “Star Wars” editions available on DVD, it’s received several tweaks and updates since its 2006 world premiere production at Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre.

Set in a basement apartment where “Star Wars” memorabilia occupies every shelf and surface, “Childish” is the story of three longtime male friends (and one girlfriend) who, after months of meticulous planning, aim to rob a nearby Kenner Toys warehouse. Reportedly, the ultimate stash of classic “Star Wars” collectibles is hidden there, and because an anonymous buyer is willing to pay two million dollars for it, each nerdy and unlikely heist participant starts daydreaming and making plans. Dave (Dan Johnson), who lives in the basement, aims to get his own place; Max (Andy Gaitens), a single dad, wants security and a better life for his four year old daughter; and Carter (Jacob Hodgson), who works a low-pay job at Kenner, plans to cut a record with his rock band and show Kendra (Meghan VanArsdalen) – a film studies grad who works at a nearby cinema and isn’t all that into “Star Wars” – he’s serious about their future together. Continue reading

My Concentrate story about the inaugural Bridging 23 Walk from Ann Arbor’s City Hall to Ypsi’s Freighthouse

IMG_3289.JPGPassing cars honked their horns Saturday morning as organizer Robin Stephens addressed a crowd gathered for the Bridging 23 Unity March from Ann Arbor’s Larcom City Hall to the Ypsilanti Freighthouse. But it was unclear whether the drivers were responding to the crowd of about 40 marchers, or a group of AT&T picketers who were circling across the street.

Stephens pumped her fist and cheered, but then quickly turned back to the Bridging 23 crowd and added, “I think they’re really honking for the strikers, but we’ll take it.

Stephens is an Ann Arbor-based criminal defense attorney and chair of the Washtenaw County Democractic Party Black Caucus, which sponsored the eight-mile walk from Ann Arbor to Ypsi. Stephens hatched the idea for the over eight-mile walk after the Dispute Resolution Center and the Association for Youth Empowerment organized the first Bridging 23 forum in April 2017. That event invited Ann Arbor and Ypsi residents, including Stephens, to come together and talk openly about what many feel is a significant divide between the two neighboring communities.

“Others’ experiences were so different from mine that I was like, ‘Wow, do we live in the same place?'” Stephens said in a post-walk interview. “Then at the end, they challenged everybody to think within themselves about something you could do to help bridge the community. In my 30-plus years of living here, there is a clear distinction between those living on the west side of the county and those living on the east.” READ THE REST HERE