Review: Academy of Russian Classical Ballet’s "The Nutcracker" at the Michigan Theater

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Academy

How do you know winter is coming? Nutcracker productions pop up like wildlings.

This time of year some people need to hang lights, some people need to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas? and some people need to attend a performance of The Nutcracker.

The ballet scratches a certain holiday itch with its familiar Tchaikovsky score and story of a Clara, a young girl who receives a nutcracker doll at her family’s Christmas party and, after a bit of magic, helps her now-human nutcracker prince defeat an army of giant mice. They celebrate by traveling through a snowstorm to the Kingdom of the Sweets where they are entertained by politically incorrect dances from faraway lands. All right, the plot isn’t its strong point, but a good Nutcracker hooks a certain segment of the population with its holiday appeal and lovely dancing.

As a member of that somewhat rarefied demographic, I went away satisfied from The Academy of Russian Classical Ballet’s production at the Michigan Theater on Saturday, December 10. I’m betting that the families there -- with children all dressed up and out past bedtime in a grand downtown theater -- also felt the itch scratched. It hit all the right notes with its convivial party scene and high-spirited dancing.

Review: Owen Gleiberman Discusses His Book, "Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies

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Owen Gleiberman

Owen Gleiberman keeps it freaky.

Nationally known film critic Owen Gleiberman appeared in his hometown -- specifically, the University of Michigan’s Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery -- on the evening of December 7 to talk about his book, Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ann Arbor plays a key supporting role in Gleiberman’s story. Gleiberman moved to Treetown with his family when he was about five, and he grew up during the '60s and '70s -- which happened to be the heyday for U-M’s campus film societies. Gleiberman wrote about film while a student at Pioneer High, and he continued to do so for The Michigan Daily as a college student.

“I don’t know if i would have ever wanted to become a film critic, or a film buff, or everything this book is about if it hadn’t been for Ann Arbor, and the way this place kind of nurtured me,” Gleiberman said before reading a passage from his book on Wednesday night.

But in addition to chronicling his descent into movie madness, Movie Freak also, Gleiberman noted, turned out to be a kind of valentine to analog culture.

Review: UM’s Peter and the Starcatcher celebrates joyful child’s play

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Sebastian Gerstner and Olivia Hernandez

Yo-ho-ho, it's a bottle of fun. / Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

Once upon a time ....

All good stories start that way.

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance is presenting one of those timeless stories told from a different perspective.

Peter and the Starcatcher is a rollicking prequel to J.M. Barrie’s famous play of eternal youth, Peter Pan. Rick Elice’s play, based on a snarky young adult novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is a play about play, child’s play. It’s about taking on different roles, imagining far away places where adults are the enemy, leaping about and sword fighting, rude body humor, scary scenes and, of course, all’s well that ends well happy endings.

It’s not technically a musical but there is a lot of lively music and a few pirate songs and a mermaid song created for the show by Wayne Barker.

Best of all it’s a great piece of theater that stays loyal to Barrie’s original play, full of pirates and a tribe of, well, disgruntled chefs and three lost boys. And this time around, there’s a girl who tells good night stories, but only when she has time away from saving the world and rescuing a nameless young boy from unhappiness.

Review: UMGASS Ensorcells Again with The Sorcerer

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One of these things is not canon, but you'd never know it.

Left to right: Pat Johnson as Mr. Wells' Assistant, Lee Vahlsing as Dr. Daly, and David Andrews as John Wellington Wells. Photo by Marilyn Gouin, courtesy of UMGASS.

This weekend, the University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society (UMGASS) presents their fall production of The Sorcerer at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. I love Gilbert & Sullivan, but I've only seen The Sorcerer a few times over the years, so I was eager to see what UMGASS would bring to the show that established the template for more famous G&S operettas.

While UMGASS focuses, to my delight, on relatively traditional productions of these hallowed works, they always bring a little something new, and in this production, Artistic Director Lori Gould has taken the rather bold step of adding a new character. I stowed my pitchfork after it became immediately clear that the addition of a comedic Sorcerer's Assistant was a brilliant choice, adding lots of laughs and clever moments without taking any untoward liberties with the source material. Don't get me wrong, there are definitely some liberties being taken, but all in the audience agreed that such liberties were entirely toward.

Interview: Dr. Thomas Strode and Boychoir of Ann Arbor

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Boychoir of Ann Arbor

A past edition of the Boychoir of Ann Arbor chilling in their vestments.

It’s a haunting sound when a group of boys’ voices in the treble range convene.

I’m not talking about performances by boychoirs, which feature the unchanged voices of prepubescent boys, who together make a sound so lovely and pure that the effect is haunting.

I’m talking about the start of boychoir practices and the scary sound created when a gaggle of rambunctious dudes with short attention spans and constant jokes get together to learn the craft of choir singing.

But for 30 years, the ever-patient Dr. Thomas Strode has led the Boychoir of Ann Arbor through innumerable practices, and his ability to keep cool and impart high-quality musical education to a rather wiggly and easily distracted audience is remarkable.

In the common area of Ann Arbor’s St. Paul Lutheran Church, where Strode is the director of music, he teaches boys musical theory and gives singing lessons using a quiet, measured tone of voice. Under Strode's gentle guidance, the boys' constant hum of silliness at the start of practice soon becomes a gloriously soothing sound when they begin to sing.

Strode instructs a prep choir, for newer singers, as well as the performing choir, which features more experienced vocalists and expands the treble boychoir model to also include an SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) choir, with the older boys and their changing voices providing the lower notes.

Dr. Strode really understands how to teach children, which is why Boychoir of Ann Arbor has thrived for three decades. And the kids really do learn to sing beautifully, as listeners will be able to hear at the “A Boychoir Christmas” concerts on December 9 and 10.

These annual shows are highlights for many holiday concertgoers -- but they will also be Strode’s final ones as the choir’s director. He’s retiring at the end of the boychoir’s season, which wraps on June 4 with the “Spring Finale” concert.

With this being Strode’s final Christmas concert, we asked the good doctor to give us a preview of what we will hear and why.

Preview | Interview: Singer Marlena Studer

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Marlena Studer

Wine, woman, song: Marlena Studer is ready for the holidays.

Singer Marlena Studer has a particular affinity for the holidays that stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve. The jazz and American popular-song stylist enjoys digging into the Christmas and wintertime chestnuts everyone knows, especially ones that evoke the love and camaraderie many people feel for their family and friends during this time of year.

Studer, as most people do, connects the holidays with memories; in her case, she recalls being taught how to sing by her mother. She remembers singing nursery rhymes and, later, tunes popularized by Andy Williams and Neil Diamond. “My mother taught me to sing when I was two years old,” she said. “She loved showing off her kids in front of the grandparents. We would stand up in front of them and sing songs and they would clap for us. I also danced and performed in theater in high school.”

Preview: Winter Art Tour

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Get ready to shop deep local at craft fairs the weekend of December 9–11.

Get ready to shop deep local at craft fairs the weekend of December 9–11.

Those looking for wonderful handmade gifts in Washtenaw County are in luck this December! Last year Pulp focused on four events in the county, but in 2016 there's a lot more going on. In fact, a local group has created an official Winter Art Tour that takes you to nine stops at craft fairs and art studios across Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti the weekend of December 9-11. There's even a passport you can get stamped when you visit one of the tour's locations, and if you hit up at least four spots, you have a chance to win cool handcrafted prizes. See the WAT website for all the details on the Winter Art Tour’s passport and prizes.

The biggest events of the weekend-long handmade shopping extravaganza are the two indie craft fairs: Tiny Expo in Ann Arbor and DIYpsi in Ypsilanti.

Tiny Expo takes place at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library and is an annual holiday fair that features 45 artists and crafters selling their wares in a festive library space. This one-day celebration (December 10, 11 am-5:30 pm) will also have several make-n-takes, including screen printing, button making, and tiny polymer clay snow globes.

The Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti is home to DIYpsi, which will host 90 vendors of the best in handmade from the Midwest. It’s a chance to enjoy handcrafted food and drinks while you get your shop on at this super-fun two-day show. (December 10, 11 am-6 pm; December 11, 12-6 pm)

Plan your weekend accordingly and hit up both events!

In contrast, if you’re looking for cozy spaces with unique art by local artisans, the rest of the stops on the Winter Art Tour have you covered.

Preview: December Documentaries

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Warren Miller’s Here, There & Everywhere

Warren Miller is Here, There & Everywhere. / Photo by Cam McLeod Photography.

Do you have a God complex? Then documentary filmmaking might not be for you.

“In feature films the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director,” said the deity Alfred Hitchcock.

But the seven documentaries being shown in Ann Arbor this December had directors who put aside any supernatural ambitions they may have to tell real stories.

Review: UMMA's "Europe on Paper: The Ernst Pulgram and Frances McSparran Collection"

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Emil

Emil Nolde, Actress, 1912, watercolor on brown wove medium-weight paper. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of the Ernst Pulgram and Frances McSparran Collection, 2007/2.102 / Egon Schiele, Standing Female Nude–Back, first quarter of 20th century, charcoal and pen on paper. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of the Ernst Pulgram and Frances McSparran Collection, 2007/2.99

Europe on Paper at the University of Michigan Museum of Art certainly delivers everything it says in its title. But as is often the case at the UMMA, there’s a lot more to this exhibit than meets the eye.

For the display is a handful of seriously handsome artworks on paper. And as Lehti Mairike Keelmann, UMMA Assistant Curator of Western Art says in her introduction to the exhibit:

[T]he 47 prints, drawings, and watercolors comprising the Ernst Pulgram and Francis McSparran Collection provide a unique perspective on a momentous change in European history.

The works were made between the 18th and mid-20th century,” says Keelmann, “as the continent industrialized and new modes of transportation began to crisscross the countryside, connecting growing cities. Geopolitical tensions arose as nations attempted to bolster their identities on the world stage, culminating in the violence and turmoil of the two world wars.

And as if these geopolitical upheavals weren’t dramatic enough, there was pretty good art being made all over the place, too. That’s where Pulgram and McSparran come into play. A young and adventurous couple as they had to be, they consistently evaluated and scooped up some of the finest personalized art of this explosive period through their lifetimes.

Review: Theatre Nova's 'Sugar Plum Panto'

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Sugar Plum Panto 2016

Theatre Nova's Sugar Plum Panto.

One of my favorite moments in Friday’s preview performance of Theatre Nova’s new Sugar Plum Panto was unscripted.

Actress Sarah Briggs asked the crowd what was on their Christmas lists this year. When a man jokingly answered, “A girlfriend,” Briggs cocked her head, pursed her lips, made a small “go get ’em” gesture, and said in a low, sympathetic voice, “Hang in there, Tiger.”

Pantos, of course, are a longstanding British holiday tradition, but they’ve also recently taken root at Theatre Nova, beginning with last year’s An Almost British Christmas. Pantos take a familiar children’s story and give it several silly twists and updates, integrating physical comedy and childish humor with more sophisticated, cheeky, and timely jokes for adults, thus drawing families all together for a night at the theater. Panto audience members are encouraged to boo and hiss when the villains appear, and candy is thrown to the kids in the crowd a few times, making for a loose, chaotic-but-fun atmosphere.