My Pulp review of Kickshaw Theatre’s ‘Santaland Diaries’

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 6.37.38 PM.pngDespite the clichéd, eye-roll-inducing notion of creative work that makes you laugh and makes you cry, David Sedaris’ essays are nearly universally adored because they regularly, miraculously achieve just that.

This has become particularly true in recent years as Sedaris has explored, with bracing candor, the painful aftermath of a sister’s suicide and grappled with his complicated relationship with his aging, politically conservative father.

Yes, Sedaris and his craft have both come a long way since his hilarious, breakout 1992 radio essay “The Santaland Diaries” — chronicling Sedaris’ work experience as a Macy’s elf in New York City during the holidays — premiered on NPR’s Morning Edition. It’s since become a kind of subversive holiday classic, up to and including a one-man stage adaptation by Joe Mantello that’s now being produced (in Ypsilanti) by Kickshaw Theatre.

In The Santaland Diaries stage production, Sedaris (Yianni Papadimos) tells the story of being an aspiring young actor in New York, with big dreams of getting work on his favorite soap opera, One Life to Live. After three weeks, when nothing even close to that pans out, he answers a quirky newspaper want ad for Macy’s elves. He goes through multiple job interviews; sits through an inevitably absurd elf-training class; gives himself the elf-name Crumpet; and then finally, he works at different stations — with a broad array of Santas and fellow elves — within a department store’s seasonal, snow-globe world.

I’ve seen a few productions of Santaland Diaries now, and it’s always interesting to observe how different actors, of varying physical builds and backgrounds, re-shape Crumpet a bit in their own image. Papadimos, with his dark beard and burly build, looks all the more absurd in his green velvet jumper, candy-cane tights, and a jester-like red hat. And when Crumpet’s frustration threatens to reach its boiling point, or he’s particularly sharp-tongued, there’s a hint of real menace behind the words. READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp review of the UMS presentation of ‘Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce’

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 12.07.57 PM.pngUsually when I see a show for review, I don’t end up on stage, singing a Pogues song.

But then, most shows are nothing like Taylor’s Mac’s Holiday Sauce, which UMS brought to the Power Center on December 14 and 15.

Mac has so many talents that I’d wear out my hyphen key if I tried to list them all. A MacArthur “Genius” and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Mac created Holiday Sauce as a tribute to the playwright-singer-artist’s drag mother, Flawless Sabrina. “She used to always say, ‘You’re the boss, apple sauce,” Mac said, referring to the show’s title, and Sabrina regularly hosted “judy” and others during the holidays. (As Mac told the Los Angeles Times, “[M]y gender pronoun is ‘judy’ because I wanted a gender pronoun that is an art piece.”)

And indeed, Mac’s final elaborate ensemble for the evening, which made judy resemble a majestic, snow-covered peak, featured what looked like a formation of tiny pine trees that spelled “BOSS” down the gown’s back.

Mac wore this while performing the show’s quietest and most personal number, “Christmas at Grandma’s,” wherein judy sat alone on stage and played ukulele. The darkly comic, ironically jaunty song chronicled what the holidays were like when judy was annually dragged to visit homophobic relatives who were themselves struggling with past sexual abuse, a serious head injury, and alcoholism.

So … a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, right?

But that’s the point, of course: While we’re all confronted each year by cultural depictions of perfect families joyously celebrating the holidays together, the reality is that a good number of us identify far more with the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys. READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp review of U-M’s musical theater department studio production of ‘A New Brain’

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 12.12.17 PM“Sometimes joy has a terrible cost” is a quintessential lyric in William Finn’s autobiographical musical, A New Brain.

And in the production staged this past weekend at the Arthur Miller Theater by the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre, creatively blocked composer Gordon Michael Schwinn (Jack Mastrianni) gets an existential jolt of electricity by way of an unexpected, scary brush with death.

For just as Gordon struggles mightily to write a song for a children’s television show frog named Mr. Bungee (Matthew Sanguine), he meets up with his agent and best friend Rhoda (Brianna Stoute) for lunch and suddenly loses consciousness. After various tests, a hilariously blowhard doctor (Hugh Entrekin) tells Gordon he needs a craniotomy, and this scary news sends Gordon, his mother Mimi (Madeline Eaton), and his lover Roger (Luke Bove) into an emotional tailspin.

While this may not sound upbeat and lighthearted, A New Brain — which premiered Off-Broadway in 1998, with music and lyrics by Finn, and a book by Finn and James Lapine — is a kind of odd, lovable, small, shaggy dog of a musical. Because the primary narrative’s series of events is markedly compact (Gordon’s collapse, diagnosis, surgery, and outcome), the 90-minute show opens its doors with some quirky turns, providing space for fanciful character tangents (like “nice nurse” Richard’s lament, “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat”), minor characters (a homeless woman), and frog-haunted flights of hallucination and memory (“And They’re Off,” which fills in the blanks on why Gordon’s father isn’t part of the picture).

Inspired by Finn’s own arteriovenous malformation diagnosis, in the months following his Tony Award-winning success with FalsettosA New Brain is a flawed but endearing confection. For every seeming misstep — to name one, the homeless character never wholly justifies her sizable footprint within the show (even though Daelynn Jorif’s vocals wowed me) — there are several brilliant little strokes of wit, surprise, and warmth. READ THE REST HERE

My Michigan Alumnus story about the 1967 U-M Men’s Glee Club performances in the Soviet Union

gleeclubOn May 15, 1967, nearly five dozen members of the U-M Men’s Glee Club boarded a bus at the Michigan Union to embark on an eight-week world tour. Many of them had never traveled west of the Mississippi before, let alone to the other side of the world.

The tour’s itinerary involved more than 30 flights, including scheduled performances in Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Sweden, France, and England.

It also included one particularly historic stop in Moscow during the Cold War. That leg of the journey came four weeks into the tour, directly after the glee club’s stop in India.

“We went from a dry 112 degrees to a wet 55,” says Donald Sanderson, ’68, a “clubber” who was part of the 1967 tour. “The contrast in the atmosphere was just as stark. The free air of India was exchanged for tangible oppression in Moscow.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metro Parent essay about learning the truth about my aging father’s economic realities

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 12.59.17 PM.pngLast year, while visiting my 76-year-old father in North Carolina during the holidays, he casually mentioned that he’d taken out a reverse mortgage – which is to say, he’d taken out a loan against the value of his fully-paid-for home.

“Wait – you did?” I said, stunned.

Though I knew that money had become more of a worry for Dad in recent years – he sheepishly apologized for no longer sending checks in our birthday cards (which were, I’d noticed, those free ones you get when an organization is soliciting for donations by mail) – I hadn’t realized his finances had gotten as dire as all that.

When I asked my dad whether the mortgage was a result of health care costs, he said, “It’s just everything,” with a shrug in his voice.

He never imagined he’d be in this kind of position in his old age, and I guess I hadn’t, either. READ THE REST HERE

My Planet Detroit essay about parenting in the age of climate change

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 12.51.13 PM.pngNobody can hold your feet to the fire quite like an eight-year-old.

Seriously. My youngest daughter’s been pushing me on some pretty hard questions lately.

And I’m not talking about death (we covered that ground pretty thoroughly two years ago) or Santa (in whom she likes to believe, so she just doesn’t go there).

I’m talking about how, after I drove Neve to a day camp this past summer, and we heard an NPR story about a heatwave in Europe making its way to Greenland, she quietly asked from the backseat, “Is something bad happening to the earth?”

I mean, how do you, as a parent in 2019, respond to that?

You start with a lot of throat clearing. READ THE REST HERE