My Pulp recap of Pasek and Paul’s (and Darren Criss’) appearance at U-M to promote novelization of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 4.05.49 PM.pngAt one point during Thursday night’s sold out, joyous on-stage conversation with Grammy, Tony, and Oscar award-winning songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — who met and started writing songs together when they were U-M musical theater students (’06) — surprise guest moderator Darren Criss (Glee) stated what many of us were thinking: “Collectively, we’re a Michigan EGOT.”

Yes, Criss (’09) arrived in Ann Arbor fresh off his Emmy win for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, while Pasek and Paul came to promote a newly released novelization of their hit Broadway show, Dear Evan Hansen.

But the nearly two-hour event, presented by Literati Bookstore at U-M’s Rackham Auditorium, mostly felt like a chance to crash a reunion of really talented, witty friends who’d also, along the way, perform a few songs and a short reading.

There were occasional wireless microphone problems, thanks to the presence of ESPN’s College GameDay on campus, but even this just provided more opportunity for the three artists to play off each other. For instance, after struggling repeatedly with his mic, Paul accepted a second and talked into both, and Pasek quipped, “This is our relationship in a nutshell.”

Pasek also seemed genuinely awestruck by Criss’ charisma, saying, “You’re so charming in front of people!” READ THE REST HERE

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My Pulp preview of U-M’s production of Charles Mee’s myth-inspired ‘Night & Day’

Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 10.18.38 PM.pngThough the title Night and Day initially calls to mind a famous Cole Porter tune, U-M’s new production of the same name — consisting of a pair of playwright Charles Mee’s myth-inspired “dance/theatre works” — bears absolutely no relation to the song.

Well, unless director Malcolm Tulip and his artistic collaborators decide it does, that is.

How could a theatrical presentation be so malleable? That’s both the allure and challenge of Mee’s work. Dubbed the “public domain playwright,” Mee draws on old stories, re-tells them with new text, and offers them up freely online by way of his (re)making project. Built on the idea that “there is no such thing as an original play,” (re)making invites artists to use Mee’s plays as the creative starting point more than a blueprint.

“It’s this incredible mixture of working with text, but then devising a whole new piece, too, because of the liberty he gives you to alter it and to remake his work,” said Tulip. “For me, the approach was discovering what all the parts meant, and what the skeleton of what he amassed looks like. Because even he’s bringing together elements from other sources, making a kind of collage. So you end up talking about and determining what you keep, what the thrust of each section is, and how you remake or rewrite them.” READ THE REST HERE

My latest WEMU-FM 89.1 Art & Soul segment w/ Lisa Barry, and special guest Lynn Lammers from Kickshaw Theatre

Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 10.14.17 PM.pngThis week, Art and Soul is about the performing arts, and 89.1 WEMU’s Lisa Barry is joined by Jenn McKee and the artistic director of Kickshaw Theatre in Ann Arbor, Lynn Lammers, talking about their current show, “Milvotchkee, Visconsin.”

Lynn Lammers describes experiences at the Kickshaw Theatre in one word: “curiosity.”  In other words, they search for production that would take the audience out of their comfort zones.  “Milvotchkee, Wisconsin” certainly fits this description, as the story explores the impacts of dementia.  The play is told entirely from the dementia patient’s perspective. LISTEN TO THE 8 MINUTE SEGMENT HERE

My Destination Ann Arbor post on Chelsea’s Smoke & Ale Fall Festival

Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 10.08.03 PM.pngIf there was an award for best-smelling local event, the prize would likely go to Chelsea’s annual Smoke & Ale Fall Festival, happening October 12-13.

For not only will more than 40 serious barbecuers from different parts of the region gather to compete in SAFF’s Professional Masters Series (now sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society); there will also, for the first time in the fest’s five year history, be a Cornbread Cookoff and a Backyard Barbecue Competition (for less serious hobbyists) – alongside loads of locally crafted beer, wine, cider, and food vendors.

“(Smoke & Ale) mainly started because fall’s a quiet time here in Chelsea, and we all love food, and we all love music and beer,” said Monica Monsma, executive director of Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce. READ THE REST HERE

My Detroit Free Press story about Alec Baldwin’s UMS residency

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Baldwin performing in a concert reading of “Death of a Salesman” with U-M students. (Photo by Nick Beardslee)

Though Alec Baldwin came to Ann Arbor on Saturday to play theater’s quintessential miserable, unraveling father, Willy Loman, in a staged reading of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” the TV and film star was the picture of unabashed paternal joy the next day.

After giving a talk to about a hundred University of Michigan theater students on Sunday morning, Baldwin stole a moment to wave and beam at his young brood (four children under the age of 6, by wife, Hilaria) on his phone.

Not only did students get the chance to ask Baldwin about his long, varied career and his approach to the craft, but U-M theater professor Daniel Cantor — who directed Saturday night’s one-time performance presented by University Musical Society — conducted an on-stage interview with Baldwin at, appropriately enough, the Arthur Miller Theatre. READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW: Tipping Point Theatre’s ‘Miss Firecracker Contest’ kicks off the season with laughs

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Kryssy Becker stars in Tipping Point Theatre’s production of Beth Henley’s “The Miss Firecracker Contest.”

When even the Miss America Pageant is taking a long, hard look at itself (and eliminating its trademark swimsuit competition) in this #MeToo moment, you might be surprised to learn that Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre recently opened its twelfth season with a production of Beth Henley’s “The Miss Firecracker Contest” (1980).

After all, the Southern fried comedy focuses on Carnelle (Kryssy Becker), a reformed, churchgoing, good-deed-doing young woman who previously had been known around her Mississippi hometown as “Miss Hot Tamale.” Carnelle’s decided that if she can win the town’s annual beauty pageant, she might finally be able to put her bad reputation behind her, and maybe even leave town in a “blaze of glory.”

Director Dani Cochrane confesses in her program note that she, too, was initially wary of the play’s messages, but that over time, she and her cast came to appreciate “Miss Firecracker”’s characters and their “desperate need for love and acceptance.”

For in addition to Carnelle, there’s her beautiful older cousin Elain (Hallie Bee Bard) – a former Miss Firecracker herself – who’s run away from her wealthy husband and children; her brother Delmount (Patrick Loos), a mercurial, vain, self-styled poet and lothario who has a score to settle with Elain; Popeye (Maggie Meyer), an eccentric but good-hearted new seamstress in town who’s commissioned to make Carnelle’s pageant costumes; Mac Sam (Aaron Kirby), a self-destructive carnie and former beau of Carnelle’s; and Tessy (Shauna Hitchcock), an assertive stage manager for the pageant who once shared an evening with Delmount that he’d prefer to forget.

Like Cochrane, I approached “Miss Firecracker” with reservations (and I don’t mean our tickets). Having watched a previous production years ago, I didn’t count myself as a big fan of what had felt like a dated script. However, I’m usually pretty open to giving shows another go, especially when there are artists whose work I respect involved – and that’s definitely the case at Tipping Point.

So was the talent involved enough to win me over? Keep reading. Continue reading

REVIEW (We Love Ann Arbor): Kickshaw’s ‘Milvotchkee, Visconsin’ is moving, no matter how you say it

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The cast of Kickshaw Theatre’s “Milvotchkee, Visconsin.” (Sean Carter Photography)

Shortly before I saw Kickshaw Theatre’s production of Laura Jacqmin’s “Milvotchkee, Visconsin,” I learned that a kind-hearted woman I’d known in high school was recently diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer (while being x-rayed for a completely unrelated condition).

All of which is to say, I’d already been mulling over the ways disease shatters our precarious sense of control over our bodies and our lives when I arrived to watch this play, which deftly, candidly chronicles an aging woman’s (Molly’s) journey into dementia. (Presumably Alzheimer’s, but the script pointedly avoids naming Molly’s illness.)

Jacqmin tells the story through Molly’s point of view – which is less common than approaching it through the lens of loved ones, in part because it’s far more challenging. After all, how do you convey a clear tale from a person who’s losing her grip on memory and reality? Yet Jacqmin makes this bold authorial leap with wit and commitment; and when her script is paired with Kickshaw artistic director Lynn Lammers’ sure-handed direction, the results are, by and large, quite moving.

Molly (Nancy Elizabeth Kammer), a widow, has spent years giving tours of Wisconsin Concrete Park, a strange, real-life roadside attraction that was the brainchild of a man named Fred Smith. The sculptures depict an odd assortment of scenes, built by a man who wasn’t an artist but nonetheless felt compelled to make them, from concrete and pieces of glass (often from beer bottles). We accompany Molly as she gives tours – sometimes with her long-dead husband Richard (Michael Hays) along for the ride – but we also tag along as she sees her doctor (Dave Davies), receives visits from her two grown children (Aral Gribble and Sonja Marquis), gets confused while watching a movie, confronts a haunting personification of her disease (which she diagnoses as a hole in her head), and participates in a support group session. READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW (We Love Ann Arbor): Theatre Nova’s ‘The Totalitarians’ lampoons American politics

Screen Shot 2018-09-24 at 2.42.42 PM.pngHarvey Milk famously said, “Politics is theater,” and he wasn’t wrong. When everything you say and do on the campaign trail, and while in office, is closely scrutinized by the public you serve, your behavior is inevitably shaped by that awareness.

Not surprisingly, this natural kinship between two performative constructs has resulted in a number of plays about politicians and the people who work with them, and Theatre Nova’s production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s black comedy “The Totalitarians” (which had its world premiere in 2014) is among the most recent crop.

“The Totalitarians” focuses on a young and hungry political operative wannabe named Francine (Sayre Fox), who hitches her wagon to rising star Penelope Easter (Diane Hill), a Nebraska state government candidate more famous for her great hair than for clear policy positions or eloquence.

Francine’s physician husband Jeffrey (Joe Zarrow) – who feels neglected, wants a baby, and questions Francine’s advocacy for a seemingly unqualified, shallow candidate – also struggles at work, where he meets (and treats) a young, manic conspiracy theory nut named Ben (Connor Forrester). Instead of working up the courage to deliver Ben’s dire prognosis, Jeffrey falls under the sway of Ben’s bizarre notions about a secret plan to make Nebraska a totalitarian state.

“The Totalitarians” clearly doesn’t aim to paint a realistic portrait. (Francine, despite being “on the rise,” is a pretty terrible speech writer, and Jeffrey, who can’t screw up the courage to give his patients bad news, could not possibly retain a license to practice medicine). Rather, it’s an over-the-top bit of silliness, lampooning our political system. Understood. And perhaps the seriousness of our current, divisive political climate makes it harder to sit back and laugh.

Because I must confess, I didn’t find myself laughing much at all. READ THE REST HERE

Dexter’s Encore Theatre gets ready to play ‘A Little Night Music’

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The cast of Encore Theatre’s “A Little Night Music.” (Photo by Michele Anliker)

Director/choreographer Matthew Brennan is gearing up for a kind of “Sondheim hat trick” at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

In 2016, Brennan helmed (and performed as Lee Harvey Oswald in) Encore’s award-winning rendition of “Assassins”; in 2017, he labored for months to bring his searing, unique vision for “Sweeney Todd” to life on Encore’s modest stage (and earned accolades and awards again); and now, he’s running rehearsals for “A Little Night Music,” experimenting and making adjustments.

“We’re doing a run with British dialects tonight, just to ramp up the comedy of manners,” said Brennan. “But it’s working so well, I’m thinking maybe we’ll leave it in, or at least leave a little of that flavor. I always thought it was so weird when (‘Night Music’ productions) did that. I mean, I get that it makes it feel more otherworldly. But the story takes place in Sweden!” Continue reading

REVIEW: Slipstream’s ‘A Night of Stars, with Tennessee Williams,’ now at Theatre Nova, is a small wonder

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 11.54.53 AM.pngA go-to hypothetical question, especially among the word-nerd set, is: “What three writers, alive or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?”

The play “A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams,” by U-M student Maxim Vinogradov – produced by Ferndale’s Slipstream Theatre Initiative, but now on stage (as a guest production) at Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova – makes a pretty solid case for including the troubled playwright of “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the table.

Why? Because between the stream of not-yet-A-list stars (Paul Newman, Marlon Brando) and super-famous actresses (Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn) that flocked to Williams, hoping to be cast in his plays and films, and the more established artists (Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Greta Garbo) that composed his entourage, Williams became a sun at the center of a glitzy galaxy of his own making. Continue reading