Talent Show: "Shakespeare Unplugg’d" at The Ark

Ann Arbor theatergoers usually have to travel to Jackson to see performances by the critically acclaimed Michigan Shakespeare Festival (MSF). But on Monday, July 31, MSF company members will come to The Ark in Ann Arbor to perform. Granted, it's not a play; it's MSF's seventh annual Shakespeare Unplugg’d, a no-holds-barred variety show.

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Strike Up the Band and KissME: Swing dance fest jitterbugs back to Ann Arbor


KissME, Keep It Simple and Swing, Ann Arbor

From the ballroom to the Huron, KissMe's swing dancers are ready to wiggle it (just as little bit). Photos by Kenny Schabow.

Time to jump, jive, and wail at the 9th annual KissME (Keep It Simple and Swing) in Ann Arbor! The event brings "hundreds of people together for a weekend of music, fun, and dancing," says organizer Kenny Schabow.

While many folks enjoy jitterbugging about, they might not know swing dancing's storied history. When swing jazz took off in the 1920s, the style of dance we now call “swing” exploded right along with it. While the origins of jazz and swing dancing predate that era, its popularity began hitting the mainstream in the early decades of the 20th century. Dozens of styles were being flaunted in the dance halls with the most popular being the Lindy Hop, the Charleston, and the shag.

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Ann Arbor in Concert’s "Spring Awakening" was lovely and heartbreaking


Ira Glass

Spring Awakening rehearsal photos by John McCarthy.

For a few moments during Ann Arbor in Concert’s production of Spring Awakening on Saturday night at the Power Center, all the heightened hormonal chaos, longing, joy, freedom, and frustration of adolescence was on resplendent display.

The number, which I’ll politely refer to “Totally F-ed,” arrives late in the Tony-winning stage musical, and in the words of Rohit Gopal (who played Moritz) during the talkback, “It’s a banger.” The entire cast embodies revolt through song, and at one point Christopher Campbell’s deft choreography clearly dictates that each performer “rock out on your own as the spirit moves you.”

And boy, does the overall effect work.

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Serious sentiments in "Spring Awakening" flip the script for A2 in Concert


Ann Arbor in Concert, Spring Awakening

In the musical Spring Awakening, a group of teenagers collectively face suicide, rape, homelessness, parental incest, and depression, all while they struggle to understand their burgeoning sexuality over the course of a school year. Adapted from a German play written in the 1890s, the musical hasn’t made many changes to the storyline, it just added some rock music.

This will be Ann Arbor in Concert’s fifth production since the organization began in 2012, and this is a very different show than anything else they’ve produced. Over the past few years, Ann Arbor in Concert’s credits have included Ragtime, 42nd Street, West Side Story, and, most recently, Hairspray.

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Controversy and Comedy: Michigan Shakespeare Festival 2017


Michigan Shakespeare Festival, The Taming of the Shrew

Michigan Shakespeare Festival's The Taming of the Shrew deals with the play's misogny without major script changes.

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s board votes on the plays for a specific season -- pitched by MSF’s Producing Artistic Director Janice L. Blixt -- 18 months in advance of the curtain being raised.

So in early 2016, when MSF’s board voted to approve Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, and Chekhov’s The Seagull for 2017 (the season kicks off in Jackson on July 6), the company had no idea that it would be staging Caesar shortly after New York Public Theater’s production of the play (which depicted Caesar as Donald Trump) made national headlines and drew protestors.

“I expected Shrew to be the controversial show, where I’d be fielding questions like, ‘How are you dealing with the misogyny?’” said Blixt.

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Kickshaw mounts a first-rate production of "Really"


Really, Kickshaw Theatre

Girlfriend (Shaunie Lewis) helps Mother (Pamela Bierly Jusino) try to capture the moment in Kickshaw's staging of Really.

There's a standard announcement before Kickshaw Theatre’s production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Really: Director Lynn Lammers reminds spectators to turn off phones and that “the taking of photographs is strictly forbidden” by the actor’s union. Before she can finish, a young photographer appears, camera in hand. Click.

But no rules have been broken. The photo won’t be developed. Calvin, the photographer, is dead.

That doesn’t mean he’s out of the picture. Calvin is at the center, the only character who has a name. Mother and Girlfriend may have outlived him, but they are defined by their relationships to him. Mother is visiting Girlfriend, a photographer who has invited her for a photo shoot.

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Things I Learned From Ira Glass


Ira Glass

His American life: Ira Glass talked about some of the things he's learned during 22 years of being on the radio.

A sold out crowd flocked to see National Public Radio star Ira Glass, host of This American Life, at the Power Center Saturday night, where he presented a show titled 7 Things I’ve Learned as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s main stage series.

Using film and audio clips, and armed with nothing more than a tablet, Glass -- wearing a tailored silver suit with a white shirt -- shared what turned out to be 10 things he’s learned since getting involved with public radio at age 19, and launching TAL in Chicago in 1995.

“But they’re not the only seven things I’ve learned,” Glass emphasized during his intro, saying the lessons he’d be focusing on weren’t even the seven most important things he’s learned. (He’d tried, as an exercise, to determine those, too, but he quickly realized that that’s “the most stoner question ever. Like, chewing and swallowing, maybe?”)

Instead, the highlighted “things” were various bits of knowledge related to Glass’ work, and a quietly moving personal epiphany involving musicals. Here’s a taste of what he shared.

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Purple Rose’s “Harvey” reveals poignancy along with whimsy


Purple Rose Theatre, Harvey

Purple Rose Theatre's Harvey is oh so pleasant.

Mary Chase’s Harvey has been entertaining audiences with its gentle humor for more than 70 years. It’s a play we think we know well.

The new Purple Rose Theatre production of this Broadway classic reveals a deeper, richer, and more focused Harvey. It’s still funny, still frantic at times, but so much more.

We are most familiar with James Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd. He’s a sweet charmer and he drinks a bit but has a sense of the whimsical and a good heart. He can see eye to eye with a six-and-a-half-foot rabbit, or more precisely a pooka, a Celtic spirit with an affection for rumpots and others.

Now imagine instead a different kind of Elwood P. Dowd. He’s still a charmer with a whimsical streak. But he’s a smaller man and maybe he drinks a little more than he should and those ideas he floats about life might just be worth our attention.

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Off-the-Cuff Comedy: Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie


Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie

Hand jive: Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie are always trying to crack each other up.

Whose Line is It Anyway? stars Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie -- appearing Saturday night at the Power Center as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival -- have been doing improv comedy together since they met in the early '90s, so they have a long-established, familiar rapport with each other.

“There’s almost a sibling rivalry that happens backstage and on stage, and that becomes part of the show, watching us try to outdo each other,” said Mochrie.

Sherwood, meanwhile, confessed that he’s always looking for the chance to make his improv partner laugh on-stage. “It’s hard, because (Mochrie’s) the most stoic of all of us,” said Sherwood. “He’s granite. … If I actually say something that makes him laugh, I’ll hear, under his breath, an involuntary spasm for half a second. But that’s about it.”

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Penny Seats' light and funny "Renaissance Man" is a theatrical amuse-bouche


Penny Seats Theatre Company, The Renaissance Man

Toil and trouble mixes with fun and weird love in Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Renaissance Man.

The resistance wears elf ears.

At least, it does in Joseph Zettelmaier’s Renaissance Man, now having its world premiere via Penny Seats Theatre.

A riff on Macbeth and staged outdoors -- at West Park, in front of the band shell -- Renaissance tells the story of behind-the-scenes unrest at a fictional Renaissance festival called Gloriana. Longtime knight Martin Mackabee (Patrick Loos) and art school dropout/face painter Emma Murtz (Kelly Rose Voigt) connect partly through their shared frustration that the fair is not more historically accurate, and bristle against the inclusion of anachronisms like drench-a-wench, elves, leather corset vendors, gypsy fortunetellers, and turkey legs. Gloriana’s benevolent, permissive “king,” Chuck Duncan (Robert Schorr), earns the pair’s scorn, and Emma takes action, entrapping Chuck so that he must resign from Gloriana.

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