In the summer of 2011, Lauren London, now general counsel at Eastern Michigan University, brought together a troupe of unpretentious and fun-loving thespians who created the Penny Seats Theatre Company. The idea was to offer theater tickets that were about the price of movie tickets, affordable for all, echoing the penny seats available to Elizabethans who came to shows at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
After opening its first production at the bandshell in West Park, Penny Seats performed in assorted venues, outdoors and in, including a restaurant, a church, and the rehearsal room of a theater -- but never in a theater. They struggled with imperfect acoustics and limited equipment, becoming more technically savvy each season. And each season, Penny Seats did more and better productions. Now, they do four-show seasons that include summers in the park.
Over the years, the company produced musicals, dramas, comedies, and cabaret shows, including some original works, such as Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Renaissance Man. Horror was on the menu, too, last October, with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and in the park last summer with Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger and the musical based on Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
There was no thought of making a habit of horror. Then Zettelmaier had an idea, which he presented to London and the rest of the board.
At 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.
You don’t have to be a big spender to enjoy the University of Michigan’s engaging, dance-happy return to the 1960s, Sweet Charity.
Sweet Charity is a lighter, thinner adaptation of Federico Fellini’s film Nights of Cabiria. The Neil Simon book changes the prostitutes of Rome into New York City taxi dancers at the Fandango Dance Hall. And the story is a mere pretext for the often-exhilarating dance numbers and clever songs.
With music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity is always on the move from the minute that Nevada Koenig struts on stage as the ever hopeful and usually disappointed Charity Hope Valentine. This is a musical about frustrated romance, but it’s also a musical about dance and movement.
World-renowned guitarist and composer Pat Metheny has written a lot of music over a 40-plus-year career, and with his current tour he is taking the time to dig deeper into some of the older material. Rather than release an album and tour new tunes, he decided to put a small group of consummate musicians together who are capable of playing a wide variety of his music from across the decades. But don’t call this a retrospective. Instead, it’s more like research. The players are digging into the old tunes and finding new pathways to navigate. Metheny has clearly chosen his bandmates to be able to find fresh ways to improvise over his material.
Metheny’s UMS-sponsored performance on October 10 at Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium felt surprisingly intimate considering there were 4,000 people in attendance. The stage was set up almost like a rehearsal space, with the supporting musicians arranged in a tight circle around Metheny. The band played loose, keeping arrangements minimal and playing off of each other throughout the set. Metheny came out first, performing a beautiful solo piece on the 42-string Pikasso guitar, built for him by luthier Linda Manzer. The guitar itself is a work of art with a huge range, and Metheny used the whole instrument, fretting deep bass notes with his left hand while improvising beautiful harp-like melodies on the drone strings. Following that first piece, the rest of the band took the stage, and the energy kicked up and stayed up for the rest of the night.
On the song “5 Out of 6” from her latest album, Chime, Dessa raps:
I'm out here, arms wide
I've done it all in broad daylight
And I left the cameras running
That’s an apt characterization of her new autobiography, My Own Devices: True Stories From the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love, too, where he chronicles her 15-year career with the fiercely independent Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree. The book is an honest, clever, humorous appraisal of her family, career, and P.O.S., the Doomtree rapper with the highest profile and the longtime love of Dessa’s life. He’s referred to as X throughout the book because that’s what he is -- her ex-boyfriend. He’s still a member of Doomtree, and for years Dessa and P.O.S. have done the delicate dance to keep their group together and their solo careers growing even as their romantic relationship swung wildly between emotional hills and valleys as they rode coast to coast in a tour van.
“The task was to try to hide that, to try to not look like we weren’t getting along, and I’m sure we failed miserably at that and the tension was obvious,” Dessa said by phone between flights. “But a lot of times, I think we were able to keep the tension out of the van, to keep it to ourselves, keep it in the back with our luggage. That meant being nice, being cordial, making sure nobody had to worry about us.”
People need a place beyond home and workspace. Community, this sense of “third place” and placemaking, is featured prominently in How the Other Half Looks: The Lower East Side and the Afterlives of Images by Sara Blair and A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture by Shachar M. Pinsker.
The authors, both professors at the University of Michigan, say that their books began at the Frankel Institute for Judaic Studies. Both were part of a fellowship named Jews in the City, which brought together scholars from a variety of disciplines and led to publications about topics such as Tel Aviv’s Old Cemetery, the Jewish Ghetto of Turin, and the Soviet Shtetl.
It's not an insult to say jazz guitarist Grant Green favored feel over technique. He didn't play double-time phrases or blaze with extended chords, instead favoring a languid, minimalist style that feels more like a blues singer's phrasing transferred to the fretboard. Green's single-line-focused playing was always lyrical, melodic, and funky, which is one of the reasons he was one of the most recorded musicians in the history of Blue Note Records.
Alex Anest, leader of the Ann Arbor Guitar Trio, became so enamored with Green's playing that he decided to learn the guitarist's 1965 album Idle Moments in its entirety, which he'll present on Friday, October 12 at Kerrytown Concert House with Gayelynn McKinney (drums), Eric Nachtrab (bass), Janelle Reichman (tenor sax), Alexis Lombre (piano), and Peyton Miller (vibraphone).
The recording is one of the most celebrated of Green's career, mostly because the title track is such a chill charmer. As told in the Idle Moments liner notes by pianist Duke Pearson, who also wrote the song, the tune's nearly 15-minute running time was the result of a happy accident: Green mistakenly played the 16-bar melody twice, setting up the longer solo structure for the rest of the musicians, all of whom followed suit. The rest of the album, which includes the songs "Jean De Fleur" (Green), "Django" (John Lewis), and "Nomad" (Pearson), is equally winsome and it's easy to digest why the record is so beloved.
The CD reissue unearthed alternate versions of "Jean De Fleur" and "Django" (which is four minutes longer), and Anest based his arrangements for the concert on these takes. I spoke with Anest about what inspired him to cover the entire Idle Moments album and what he likes about Green's playing.
From songs such as Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus" to full albums such as Max Roach's We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, jazz has been a voice for social issues and protest. Ann Arbor saxophonist Tim Haldeman makes a strong statement on his new album, Open Water As a Child, a brilliant suite that rages against the Flint water disaster.
He originally presented the suite at the 2017 A2 Jazz Fest with no intention of ever playing it again; Haldeman simply wanted to blast out a singular, focused, powerful intention into the universe. But the reception to Open Water As a Child was so positive that Haldeman reconsidered and decided to document his protest piece.
Haldeman (tenor sax) gathered poet John Goode (words/vocals), Dan Bennett (alto sax), Justin Walter (trumpet), Jordan Schug (cello), Jonathan Taylor (drums), and Ben Willis (bass) at Big Sky Studios in Ann Arbor and they cut a powerful record that inspires even as the topic it tackles infuriates.
The album features five songs with loose structures that allow the players to improvise freely in a way that builds upon his framework and gives them room to add their own voices of discontent to the suite. The album is bookended by Goode's poems, which trace Flint's interactions with water and tragedies, tying the trials of Native Americans with the present-day residents poisoned because of goverment negligence.
Open Water As a Child is an important record. Its release will be celebrated at Ziggy's in Ypsilanti on Thursday, October 11 at 8 pm. I talked to Haldeman about the creation of the album.
Brenda Travis surprised me.
When she came to AADL on September 27 to discuss her book Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter with her co-author, John Obee, I hadn’t expected her to burst into song. But that’s exactly what she did, singing parts of "Ella’s Song," a tune written in honor of civil and human rights leader Ella Baker. The audience joined in, singing with her. Her talk was not to be a passive listening experience.
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons,
is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons ...
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes”
--lyrics from "Ella’s Song"
Travis then explained that one of the reasons that she’s still on the civil rights journey is that she still believes in freedom. “There is still a place called hope," she said, "and we have to make hope our homes. We have to continue this struggle and fight until we can get it right. ... To the young people, I’m hoping tonight that I can instill or wake up something within you to want to carry on this battle, to carry on this fight, because if you don’t we’re going to be lost -- not just a nation but a lost world.”
Ever wanted to get in your car and take off across the country? Who among us has not sat behind the wheel of the car and contemplated going instead of east into the sunrise instead of west into the office, going on a grand adventure? But what if you had to go on a road trip -- to save your brothers, save your family?
That’s the dilemma facing the Avila family in Patrick Flores-Scott’s latest book, American Road Trip. While life looks good for Teodoro “T," things aren’t so promising for older brother Manny, a soldier just home from Iraq with overwhelming PTSD. To save them all, their sister Xochitl takes the brothers on an epic road trip where the siblings deal with everything from socioeconomic pressures to first love to mental health issues plaguing our veterans.
Flores-Scott, an Ann Arbor native, was inspired to create a character who was a veteran with PTSD after hearing a story on National Public Radio.