While watching Shakespeare in the Arb’s Saturday evening production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which wrapped up its run this past weekend, I realized that it’s kind of the Elizabethan drama ancestor of a famous Seinfeld episode called, “The Contest.”
Why? Because in both stories, four characters make a pledge to each other to suppress sexual desires (and its expression), and in both stories, they fail miserably – and pretty immediately.
Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, begins when Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Will Arnuk), decrees that he and three companions – Lords Berowne (Michael Shapiro), Dumaine (Nicholas Menagan), and Longaville (Jackson Tucker-Meyer) – will dedicate themselves to scholarly study for three years, sleeping little, fasting often, and abstaining from any contact with women, so as to not be distracted.
Shortly after signing the pact, though, Ferdinand’s reminded that the Princess of France (Clare Brennan) is on her way to Navarre, accompanied by three ladies-in-waiting: Rosaline (Amy Robbins), Maria (Rebecca Godwin), and Katherine (Maia Gersten). When the King greets the royal party to explain why they must make camp outside his court, he falls in love with the princess, of course, and his friends become smitten with her companions, leaving the men scrambling to convey their affections to the women while also hiding it from their compatriots.
Shakespeare in the Arb shows are always “traveling” productions, so instead of watching a series of set changes, the audience gets up and moves to a new part of Nichols Arboretum. This is a double-edged sword, of course, because while it gives the players a great variety of natural backdrops within which to play, the logistics of getting a couple hundred audience members from one area of the park to another – separating the ground-sitters up front from the chair-sitters behind – more than a half dozen times can bloat the show’s running time, compromise momentum, and grow unwieldy (audience members at Saturday’s performance seemed to get a smidge grumpier/more impatient with each transplant).
Even so, the unique opportunity to marry classic material with outdoor elements is part of what has made Shakespeare in the Arb a magical, beloved, 16 year old tradition. For watching Ferdinand and his friends hide in the trees as they’re each revealed, one-by-one, to be composing love letters, and seeing the Princess leading her party away, in mourning, far off in the distance as a scene among the men plays out, makes Shakespeare’s text come alive in beautiful, arresting ways.
Not that Love’s Labour’s Lost is among the bard’s best plays – far from it. Like a romantic comedy that doesn’t quite know when to quit throwing obstacles in love’s path, the three hour play drags most heavily in its second half. Once the men confess to each other their love for the women, they decide to abandon the oath and visit the royal party in disguise (according to the text, as Muscovites, but in Kate Mendeloff’s Arb production, they all looked more like The Princess Bride’s Dread Pirate Roberts); but the women get wind of this scheme and play a trick of their own, disguising themselves so that each man professes his love to the wrong woman. And then, when all deceptions have finally been revealed – and it feels like the end is near – the schoolmaster and others present a theatrical pageant, drawing things out further, and the Princess receives news from home that changes everything.
Gersten made the princess a wise, strong and mischievous woman – definitely one of the best, most clearly defined performances of the night – while Robbins’ Rosaline was an ideal, charismatic foil for the equally wily and witty Shapiro. And as the cast’s youngest participant, Elijah Hatcher Kay charmed the socks off the audience as Moth.
Mendeloff incorporates a fun bit of swordplay and dance into the show, and one of her strengths is that her actors always speak Shakespeare’s poetry with a clear sense of meaning and purpose, so that those audience members largely uninitiated in the ways of the bard (including young people) can pretty easily follow the narrative.
So despite the fact that Love’s Labour’s Lost is ultimately the lesser work of a master, Shakespeare in the Arb managed to make its production – which played to many sold out crowds – the occasion for a pretty nice night in the park.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
All three floors of the Ann Arbor Art Center pulsed with energy Friday night for this summer's inaugural Pop-In event. While the center's programming is generally eclectic on the whole, the free Pop-In series presents a particularly diverse assortment of art and entertainment in a single night, suitable for all ages but particularly aimed at young adults. This Friday's event, curated by Charlie Reischl, was billed as a "digital takeover" of the art center with a variety of offerings related to electronic arts. While some attractions adhered to that theme more than others, the evening was nonetheless consistently stimulating and entertaining in unexpected ways.
Upon entering the art center, DJ Scout set the mood on the first floor with some laid-back electronic grooves. Ascending to the second floor, attendees were welcomed by members of Kickshaw Theatre, who were recruiting "test subjects" for a short theater piece entitled Technology, In the Flesh. The 15-minute play repeated numerous times throughout the night, as Dr. Tina Burglorgler (Alysia Kolascz) and her assistant Quatthew (Aral Gribble) led audiences through a series of comical "experiments" exploring the differences between our reactions to analog and digital stimuli. In the most entertaining bit, Burglorgler showed the audience several slapstick YouTube videos and then replicated them on Quatthew in some cannily executed bits of stage violence. The differences in audience reaction were striking, as attendees remained mostly straight-faced during the videos but laughed or gasped openly as Burglorgler slammed Quatthew's head into a table and whacked him in the crotch with a baseball bat. The show oversold its point a bit–real-life experiences are consistently more stimulating than digital ones. But it was an amusing, creative second effort from the extremely promising new Kickshaw company, which produced the extraordinary The Electric Baby earlier this year.
Moving up to the third floor, attendees had a wide variety of attractions to explore. Attendees could have a hands-on experience with new technology by experimenting with a sampling of instruments from AADL's music tools collection or with a Wacom digital drawing tablet (under the able guidance of cartoonist Jerzy Drozd). Wandering into an adjacent darkened room, visitors could also take in a variety of unique musical performances, like the improv duo and art project Efflux. Efflux percussionist Jon Taylor and keyboardist Simon Alexander-Adam riffed wildly on their respective instruments while a custom-built program responded to their music in real time with abstract digital images projected on several small cube-shaped screens. Between the duo's inventive improvisation and the hypnotic digital imagery, Efflux presented a surprisingly spellbinding experience.
The highlight of the evening, however, was a concluding musical performance by members of the unconventional international rap performance collective known as the Black Opera. Ann Arbor rapper Jamall Bufford and Detroit rapper Magestik Legend kicked things off with what they described as an "opening set" for the Black Opera, energetically encouraging audience participation throughout. The two departed the stage but then returned, clad in oversized masks, to perform as the Black Opera themselves. The duo blasted through an impassioned set of songs with topics ranging from police violence to overuse of social media to the Flint water crisis. Bufford and Legend changed costumes for each song, ranging from dashikis to ski masks, with striking music videos projected behind them. At the conclusion of their performance, the duo announced that they and their entire audience were now part of the Black Opera. While the audience seemed equally divided between those who were previously aware of the Black Opera and those who were initially puzzled by what they were seeing, by the show's end Bufford and Legend had thoroughly accomplished their goal: drawing the crowd into a kind of critical, but positive, musical social movement.
Pop-In will continue this summer with events on July 22 and August 5. The July event will feature an inversion of this past Friday's theme, with an emphasis on analog music, tools, and art. The August installment will split the difference, focusing on the intersection of technology and creativity in a partnership with the new conference Intermitten. If Friday's Pop-In is any indication, attendees of the two coming events are in for an eye-opening, thought-provoking, and thoroughly entertaining experience.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He would prefer that you neither slam his head into a table nor whack him in the crotch with a baseball bat, even if it would be funnier than watching a YouTube video.
Pop-In will continue this summer with events on July 22 and August 5.
We’re all pilgrims, in a sense, finding our way around the hairpin twists and bumps in our life’s path. Maybe this is why Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century writings about a group of pilgrims traveling to Sir Thomas Becket’s shrine still endure.
Or it could just be because The Canterbury Tales – adapted for the stage by Lindsay Price, and now being staged (outdoors) by Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats Theatre Company – are often laugh-out-loud funny, and demonstrate that hundreds of years ago, people had many of the same desires and fears that we have have now.
One basic human drive was, and remains, storytelling, which Chaucer’s pilgrims employ as a means of distracting themselves during the journey. For Price’s stage version of Canterbury, the pilgrims have been distilled down from about thirty, in the original Middle English text, to seven: the Pardoner (Brian Baylor), the Miller (Matt Cameron), the Franklin (Dale Dobson), the Cook (Jenna Hinton), the Prioress (Tina Paraventi), the Wife of Bath (Debbie Secord), and the Reeve (Jeff Stringer) – plus an inn’s hostess (Jennifer Sulkowski), who tags along and suggests that the pilgrims compete in a storytelling contest.
Director Anne Levy stages the production on the walkway in front of the West Park band shell, so patrons sit on blankets or lawn chairs in a tiered, grassy space. (Many brought a picnic dinner, and some snacks and drinks are available for purchase; sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen are recommended, since the sun can be pretty intense for the show’s first hour.)
Using little more than costume props and small, stackable wooden benches – in a way, Penny Seats’ Canterbury hearkens back to theater at its simplest and most pure – the spirited troupe re-enacts six of Chaucer’s most memorable tales, employing music and small bursts of audience interaction/improv for set changes. And while a couple of the stories feature bawdy sexual situations and crude acts, Price’s adaptation, paired with Levy’s direction, suggest instead of show. (It also makes some textual adjustments, so that the Nun’s Priest’s tale of a rooster and a fox is told instead by the priggish Prioress.)
Levy’s ensemble works together beautifully, occasionally working in contemporary references for fun. (Following the line, “The truth is out there,” there’s a mumbled reference to Agent Scully.) And Price’s choice to have the pilgrims re-enact the tales results in many opportunities for the players to shift accents and personas. Some don’t make sense – a New Yorker? – but they’re not supposed to. The shifts underline the fact that this is all just a bit of silly fun.
Hinton earns big laughs as the self-doubting cook who’s too cowed to tell a story; Secord plays an appropriately bold, unapologetically straight-shooting Wife of Bath (and an even funnier hen); and Stringer, as the touchy Reeve, anchors the production, stepping into many roles with no-holds-barred zest.
With a running time of just over two hours, with one intermission, Canterbury doesn’t exactly feel fleet, despite the cast’s best energy and efforts, so it’s ultimately more pleasant than thrilling. But given the relaxed vibe of the venue, and the quality of the production, there’s no reason why Penny Seats Theater – alongside Shakespeare in the Arb – shouldn’t become yet another beloved outdoor theater tradition in Ann Arbor.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
The show runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays until July 2 in Ann Arbor's West Park. Tickets are available online.
Paul Osborne’s Morning’s At Seven treads lightly on themes of personal disappointment, repressed feelings, and unrelieved tension in a small town Midwest.
Osborne’s sympathy for this world out-of-sync is given a respectful and well-performed staging by the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea. Osborne, who grew up in Kalamazoo and went on to great success as a playwright and screenwriter, creates gentle comedy from material and settings that William Inge would later turn into steamy drama in Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic and other works.
Osborne’s approach is low-key and knowing and director Michelle Mountain captures that tone and the sometimes bittersweet nature of Osborne’s comedy. The staging also evokes through set, music, and soft lighting the particulars of place and time, 1938.
Morning’s centers around four sisters who live near each other in a small, rural Midwestern town. They are getting up in years, the oldest is 72 and the others are in their 60s. Their ambitions have been small, home centered, but underneath are disappointments never openly expressed.
Cora lives with her husband Theodore, called Thor, and her younger never-married sister Aaronetta Airie. Next door is sister Ida, whose husband Carl has mental-emotional problems. Their son, the well-named Homer, is 40 and has never left home. A few blocks away is Esther. Her husband David is a retired professor who disdains his wife’s family and openly dismisses them as a pack of morons.
The quiet disruption that motivates the play is provided by Homer, who brings home his girlfriend of many years, Myrtle. He visits her in the city but has never introduced her to his family. He’s never asked her to marry him and he’s never moved into the house that his father built for the couple.
Homer suffers from the same doubts and lack of confidence that torture his father. Meanwhile, the house sits empty and Aunt Cora wants it.
What makes this work to some extent is actors who can delve deeply and sympathetically into the motivations, pains, and sly humor of these characters, who in the hands of a lesser playwright and/or a less focused cast could become rube stereotypes ripe for contempt.
At the heart of the play is Aaronetta, the “old maid.” Laural Merlington gives an outstanding performance of this feisty, righteous woman. She captures all of Airie’s contradictions from her warm-heartedness to her suspicions, nervousness, and repressed desires. This is a complex character and Merlington does a fine job of finding all the shadings that make her live as a real person.
Airie’s pain comes from her lifelong love for her brother-in-law Thor. Richard McWilliams makes that affection seem well placed in his performance of a fine, well-centered, decent man. McWilliams captures his warmth, quick empathy and sly sense of humor. Thor is the rock-solid middle American but McWilliams lifts him beyond any easy stereotype as he maneuvers through the most dramatic sections of this comedy. His face and his voice fit exactly who this man is.
Ruth Crawford is Cora, a nervous bundle of a woman. Crawford gives the character’ s desperation to have a life of her own real credence and empathy even as she stubbornly holds her ground.
Rusty Mewha plays Homer as a repressed man-child, unsure of who he is, what he wants or how to live in a world that confuses him. He is socially inept and seemingly sexually repressed. Mewha squeezes a lot of humor out of Homer’s stiff cluelessness.
Homer’s parents have other problems besides home-hugging Homer. Carl thinks he’s a failure because he never became a dentist, though he is a talented craftsman who has built houses. Hugh Maguire plays Carl as a man in a daze - a man who can’t quite connect, even or especially with his wife. Franette Liebow is atwitter as Ida, a nervous woman not quite sure what she wants. She gives sympathy to a less defined role.
Esther and David live in a slightly different world a few blocks away, the world of books, ideas, and attitudes. Esther dresses better, has a more stylish hairdo, even talks in a more refined way. Susan Craves gives all these nuances to her performance as the oldest sister. It is she who finally brings order at the end. Tom Whalen is the arrogant, demanding, and clueless academic David. Whalen plays David as a man who sees himself as a charmer and a giant among intellectual pygmies.
Rhiannon Ragland has the thankless role of Myrtle. The audience wonders how she could ever put up with Homer for 12 years in their peculiar relationship. But Ragland does well at finding the unhappiness Myrtle pushes deep inside even as she repeats again and again how happy she is.
Set designer Sarah Pearline has created a simple but charming backyard with a farm field visible in the distance. Suzanne Young’s costumes aid in quickly defining the characters and the time period. Reid Johnson’s lighting also captures the mood.
Morning’s At Seven is a small, character-driven play. Its humor is low-key, drawing chuckles and wry smiles. There is no great drama and the ending seems a bit flat. But the play has found an audience many times on Broadway and at regional theaters because of its respect for and insights into small town characters. The Purple Rose production understands those strengths and does them honor.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Mornings At Seven continues at the Purple Rose Theatre in downtown Chelsea, Wednesdays through Sundays through August 27. For information, call the box office at (734) 433-7673 or visit http://www.purplerosetheatre.org .
"This is the best I've ever felt playing in Michigan," Josh Epstein beamed toward the end of JR JR's set at this Thursday's Sonic Lunch concert in front of Liberty Plaza. Epstein's comment came off far more heartfelt than your average stage banter, not least because he and his band have had plenty of Michigan shows to compare to. Before JR JR built a national fanbase and hit the Billboard charts, they were plain old Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. from Royal Oak. Epstein's statement also seemed to reflect the resolution of a more personal struggle, as he noted during the concert that he'd started taking anxiety medication since his last Sonic Lunch appearance. Whatever the case may have been, the upbeat indie-pop band accordingly delivered one of the best sets they've played in Michigan, with high energy flowing from onstage and off.
However, the show got off to an oddly lackluster start. JR JR was preceded by an opening solo set from Joe Hawley, best known as the red-tie-clad singer and guitarist of the popular and now defunct Ann Arbor band Tally Hall. Hawley cut a quirky appearance onstage, wearing round mirror sunglasses and bare feet–a reference, he said, to an early gig that Tally Hall played barefoot. The references to his former band didn't stop there, as Hawley meandered through several acoustic Tally Hall covers including "The Bidding," "Hymn for a Scarecrow" and "Variations On a Cloud." Repeatedly noting the "emotional" experience of returning to play in Ann Arbor, Hawley seemed scatterbrained, listlessly letting a few songs trail off midway through. As he fumbled to juggle a kazoo and a bullhorn with his guitar, even fans who'd shown up in Tally Hall T-shirts seemed perplexed.
Although an entire block of Liberty from Division to Fifth was closed for the show, the crowd mostly stayed on Liberty's southern sidewalk to watch Hawley's set. But that changed as soon as Hawley walked off, with the audience flooding into the street to stand at the edge of the stage on the northern side of Liberty. JR JR wasted no time taking the stage to deliver an immediate contrast in tone. Although three of JR JR's members (Epstein, co-frontman Daniel Zott and Bryan Pope) are often behind keyboards, the band's physical energy cannot be contained. Epstein, Zott and Pope writhe to the rhythm when they're on the keys and leap around the stage with almost total abandon when they switch over to guitars. Although drummer Mike Higgins is tied to his stool, he too projects an energy that suggests he'd pick up his kit and dance if he only could.
The band, who have been playing large theaters and major music festivals nationwide for some time now, seemed to enjoy the more intimate, loosey-goosey relationship Sonic Lunch allowed them with their audience. Epstein called up a volunteer from the crowd to hold a cigarette for him to smoke in between lines of the newer cut "James Dean," sarcastically explaining that doing so might help him in his vain quest to be cool.
The show hit its high point with an exuberant rendition of the irresistible "If You Didn't See Me (Then You Weren't On the Dancefloor)." Zott stood right on the edge of the stage to deliver the lead vocal, inciting the audience to dance and finally leaping into the crowd. Zott busted moves on the street with several thoroughly amused concertgoers before climbing back onstage to finish the tune.
The set offered a broad retrospective of JR JR's brief but busy career. The band kicked things off with a spirited rendition of "War Zone," from their 2013 sophomore LP The Speed of Things, and then jumped back to their 2010 EP Horse Power for longtime favorite "Simple Girl." The band's 2015 self-titled LP, the first to bear the new JR JR moniker, was also well represented with tracks including "Gone," "Caroline" and "Break My Fall." JR JR also reached way back for two popular early covers that have largely been retired in more recent years: the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and Rodriguez's "I Think of You."
The show marked JR JR's first area performance since their appearance at Sterling Heights' Chill On the Hill festival last September. Epstein, who now lives in Los Angeles, also noted that this was the first time he'd spent a full month in Michigan in over a year. His current extended return is thanks to recording sessions for yet more new music, which the band suggested would be available before the year is out. Whenever JR JR wind up premiering the new tunes live on their home turf, we can only hope they'll be in as good a mood and deliver as much energy as they did at Sonic Lunch on June 23rd. That's going to be a tall order.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. If you didn't see him at Sonic Lunch, you weren't on the dance floor.
“Women of Manhattan, magnificent as they were, they forgot sometimes they weren’t immortal...” -Marisha Pessl
These fortysomething best friends have been meeting every Tuesday night for twenty years. Once the toast of the town, they are secretly falling apart at the seams. As Lucy, once a supermodel, now a freelance writer, watches her marriage to a renowned artist slowly falling apart, she becomes reckless when she starts receiving mysterious text messages from another man. Billy, an unemployed food and wine expert, quietly struggles to make rent each month, is exploring supper-club subscriptions. Lotta, a successful art dealer, dependent on cocktails and recreational drugs, is courting a total breakdown; while Sarah, a well-heeled socialite chasing after reality-show fame is paying the price with her reputation.
As these women of a very dangerous age navigate their ways around a city that worships only the young, it is anyone's guess how they will emerge at the end of a very bumpy summer.
"The dialogue is funny, and a plotline involving a mysterious blogger who’s terrorizing all of New York is intriguing and twisty."-Kirkus Reviews. A breezy beach read for fans of Sex and the City.
Bestselling author Emma Straub praised Rich and Pretty as "smart, sharp, and beautifully made," Rumaan Alam's portrait of two childhood best friends transitioning into their adult lives is vividly rendered, set against a tantalizing background of moneyed New York City that is impossible to resist.”
Sarah is rich—the only child of a prominent intellectual and a socialite. Lauren is pretty, and smart enough to snag a scholarship to a fancy private school in Manhattan where they met. They have been inseparable through high school and college, first jobs and first loves, and the uncertainties of their twenties. Now in their thirties, Sarah works at a charity thrift store and is planning her wedding to her doctor fiance. Lauren, steadyly making a good name for herself in publishing is care-free and single. As a way to reconnect, Sarah asks Lauren to be her maid of honor and help plan the wedding. But the closeness Sarah was hoping to reignite looks like a thing of the past when Lauren misbehaves on a bachelorette trip.
"With astute descriptions of how values, tastes, desires, and ambitions change over two decades, Alam’s tale of a divergent friendship smartly reflects the trial and error nature of finding a mate and deciding how to grow up." -Publishers Weekly. Try this if you enjoyed Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead.
The first German Park picnic of 2016 is coming up on June 25. German Park is one of Ann Arbor’s longest running, yet in some ways still lesser known, summer traditions. For over 75 years, the German Park Recreation Club has been throwing summer picnics on the last Saturdays of June, July and August. They started in 1938, when a group of German immigrants pooled their money together to purchase the land for the park off of Pontiac Trail. Many attendees have been going every summer for their entire lives! Native Germans or those who have been to Germany, often comment on the authenticity of the atmosphere, cuisine and performances at German Park. Whether you claim German heritage or not, these picnics are a wildly fun and festive display of German culture.
It’s best to arrive at German Park early, as the lines to get in grow steadily over the course of the evening. The doors officially open at 4 pm, and after passing through the front gate and paying the $5 admission fee (kids 12 and under are free), the die-hard picnic-goers rush to claim the prime spots at the community dining tables. It’s a universally acknowledged rule that if a table has a tablecloth thrown over it, it’s spoken for. You'll see people clutching tablecloths, blankets, or bedsheets, eager to snag a spot close to the music or in the shade. There’s plenty of room, though, people are friendly and accommodating, and the traditional German music can be heard throughout the park so there really are no “bad” seats in the house.
Food and drink tickets are sold for $1 each at locations around the park, and it’s wise to stock up on them. German Park still serves the same home-cooked, authentic German fare that was served at their first picnic in 1938 and the kitchen or “Deutsche Küche,” is open all evening. From bratwurst and knackwurst (a spicier version of bratwurst) to sauerkraut, spatzen, giant soft pretzels, and apple strudel, the very smell of the food at the picnics is enough to make your mouth water.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true German festival without beer, and beer there is. It’s served in white plastic buckets; another German Park tradition is to buy enough beer to make a bucket tower on your table. The German Park Recreation Club actually imports wine and beer from Germany for the event, so German beers Spaten, Spaten Optimator and Franziskaner are available, along with a selection of domestic brews.
The music and dancing are another highlight of the picnics. Wearing traditional German outfits, the German Park Trachtengruppe dancers perform twice at every picnic, at 6 and 8:30 pm, wowing the crowds with complex dances despite the restrictions of their elaborately embroidered lederhosen and dirndls. In between performances, bands play German music and picnic-goers are welcomed onto the large dance floor.
For more information about the event, including directions, parking, and the designated driver program, visit the German Park website.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library and is proud to be one-eighth German!
The 2016 German Park picnics will take place on June 25, July 30, and August 27. Admission is $5 for adults and free for persons serving in the military and for children 12 and under. The event runs from 4-11 pm.
Gregory Porter has ascended to become one of the premier male jazz singers of his, or any, generation. While his talent is unquestionable, it is the purity of his voice and the diversity he employs that makes him a standout performer and presence in contemporary popular music.
Over four CDs and a constant touring schedule, Porter has risen to the top in quick order. While his style incorporates the best of traditional jazz sound reminiscent of a young Billy Eckstine, he also takes cues from early influence of Nat “King” Cole on the more sophisticated side. He combines the bluesy hints of Joe Williams and Jimmy Witherspoon, with a dash of Stevie Wonder, while adding the soulful elegance Gregory Hines, an artist known more for his dancing or acting than his undervalued singing. Porter is also fond of the duet configuration.
Today’s kingpin Kurt Elling has had a dominant fifteen year run atop polls and album sales. Jose James is adored by many, Freddy Cole is everlasting, while Kevin Mahogany's consistency has led to his longevity. But Gregory Porter’s rise to stardom has trumped them all.
Porter's 2010 debut, Water, was a breakthrough on many artistic levels and demonstrated his exceptional talent. His follow-up Be Good, proved Porter was consistent while avoiding clichés, and led him to his current label, the legendary Blue Note Records. Two more CDs have cemented his place as a big fish in a small pond of male jazz vocalists. 2013’s Liquid Spirit and his new effort, Take Me To The Alley, have proven the most important element of a great artist – standing the test of time as a musician with a universal appeal.
Porter’s producer since day one, Kamau Kenyatta, has a distinct local connection. Those who attended the early period Montreux/Detroit Jazz Festivals may remember Kenyatta, then a prominent regular performer at the event, playing soprano saxophone and piano in the footsteps of his mentor, the late Teddy Harris, Jr. Kenyatta left Detroit for Florida, and then San Diego where he has carried on a role as a professional educator. It was in California that Porter connected with Kenyatta and was exposed to a hip hop and electronic dance music community that is yet another facet of his persona.
Porter is on a hot streak as he comes to Ann Arbor this week, with multiple wins as Best Male Jazz Singer in the Down Beat Magazine Critics and Readers Poll, as well as a Grammy Award for Liquid Spirit. That CD, in an era of declining sales, sold a remarkable one million copies, in addition to becoming the most streamed jazz album ever at 20 million hits. Take Me To The Alley has been the #1 Jazz Album on Apple Music in dozens of countries across six continents.
Recently Porter has stated how he is finding himself, with no need to adapt and try to be a singer that compromises to overtly commercial considerations. His recent hit “Don’t Lose Your Steam” reflects this realization, recognizing his role of an extension of his parents as preachers, leading to his staunch individualism, refusal to sing a majority of standards, and confidence as a self-reliant artist – no mean feat. He’s also moved his family from New York City back to Bakersfield, further emphasizing the deep respect of his roots.
Porter's promise as an artist was evident in his early work, and as his career has matured, he is fulfilling that promise in spades.
Michael G. Nastos is a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is on the Board of Directors for the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Gregory Porter performs Wednesday, June 22 at 8 pm at the Power Center for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. For more information go to a2sf.org, call the Ticket Office at (734) 764-2538 or toll-free in Michigan at (800) 221-1229 or contact email@example.com
Mila – a gay, black/hispanic teen in Emilio Rodriguez’s Spin, now having its world premiere at Theatre Nova – greets the enrichment programs at his homeless shelter, as well as the world outside, with measured skepticism.
“They try to get you with the root beer floats. Then you have to learn something,” he says.
Yet his new roommate, a more trusting Latino teen named Angelo (Jose Martinez), feels differently. “Poetry is dope,” he says weakly, like a little brother who’s been caught cuddling a teddy bear.
The young men vacillate between vulnerability and guardedness with each other throughout the show’s 80-minute run time, gingerly navigating a minefield of masculinity. Both spin self-defensive lies as well as rhymes: Angelo with his verses – which he presents to the audience between scenes, thus providing the play’s connective tissue – and Mila with rap.
But Rodriguez’s script also takes pains to remind you how young and naive these two characters are, despite their hard pasts and bluster. Mila explains, for instance, that if he ever has kids, of they were misbehaving, he’d simply tell them to knock it off. “They’ll stop, and they’ll be grateful I stayed,” he says. (This got a pretty big laugh on opening night.) And when Angelo explains that he has an alternate identity he adopts in moments of stress, Mila settles in to watch the transformation, as if expecting an act of magic to occur. In these moments, we know they’re just boys grown tall.
Daniel C. Walker designed the show’s set, consisting of little more than a back wall with a window (through which Mila sneaks out, returning later with handfuls of crumpled-up bills), two angled beds, a small, shared nightstand, and mini-dressers; Alona Shewach designed the props, keeping in mind what items these adrift young men might each choose to keep from their past. Indeed, the modest, spartan nature of the entire space makes the opening scene work, since Mila gets angry at seeing Angelo’s duffel bag on “his side.”
These two don’t feel they have a claim on much space in the world, so Mila’s become accustomed to fighting to keep the little bit he’s granted.
Walker also designed the show’s lights, which mainly shift from room scenes to Angelo’s poetry readings. (Sound designer Carla Milarch provides an aural backdrop for these readings.) But it’s Rodriguez’s funny, thoughtful script, and the performances that director Kennikki Jones gets from her actors, that ultimately make Spin a winner.
Martinez and Matthew Webb play off each other beautifully. From the start, there’s a profound contrast in their vocal cadence and posture and movement. Webb, tall and lean, initially armors himself with anger and cynicism, while Martinez conveys a more softspoken openness that slowly chips away at Mila’s walls. When Mila finally trusts enough to ask Angelo to read to him, you know that a significant milestone has been reached.
And Rodriguez is skilled enough to both earn it and avoid a too-easy ending. Though some of the play’s interludes felt like padding, instead of a means of providing new insights into the characters and their situation, I nonetheless felt a real sense of discovery regarding this Detroit-area playwright.
Plus, in the wake of the heartbreaking massacre in Orlando, wherein Mila and Angelo would have been among those targeted, it just feels right to stop talking for a while and instead listen closely to what they have to say.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Spin runs through July 10 at the Yellow Barn, 410 West Huron Ann Arbor MI, 48103. For more information and tickets visit https://www.artful.ly/theatre-nova/store/events.
I first learned of Hayes Carll from the Bob & Tom radio show about 10 years ago as I drove to work in the morning, singing such goofy favorites as "She Left Me for Jesus" and a wonderful cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s "Drunken Poet’s Dream". Then I kept listening. There was more than satire and twisted lyrics here.
Hayes started making records in 2002 after earning his chops in and around Austin, Houston and Galveston, Texas. He quickly developed a reputation for sharp-witted lyrics that could make you laugh and cry all in the same song. Hayes channels other Texas troubadours Lyle Lovett, the aforementioned RWH, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and others, but possesses a fierce yet unassuming style of his own that becomes instantly familiar and comforting.
Of his first new album in five years, Lovers and Leavers, Hayes says, “It isn’t funny or raucous. There are very few hoots and almost no hollers. But it is joyous, and it makes me smile. No, it’s not my Blood on the Tracks, nor is it any kind of opus. It’s my fifth record—a reflection of a specific time and place. It is quiet, like I wanted it to be. Like I wanted to be."
Here’s your chance to discover – or to be reunited with – one of Americana’s most gifted and poignant songwriters, Hayes Carll, appearing at The Ark in downtown Ann Arbor this Saturday, June 18 at 8:00 pm. Emily Gimble, granddaughter of legendary Texas Playboys fiddler Johnny Gimble, opens for Mr. Carll.
Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host and musical wannabe, living in and loving his adopted home, Ann Arbor.
Tickets are still available but the Ark’s 400-seat Ford Listening Room is filling up fast. Grab your tickets online or take your chances at the door.