Preview: Ingrid Racine Moving Toward Major Player Status


Ingrid Racine at the recent Ann Arbor Jazz Festival

Ingrid Racine, with Ben Rolston and Chuck Newsome, at the Ann Arbor Distilling Company during the recent 2016 A2 Jazz Festival.

Our local contingent of modern jazz improvisers is as substantial as those coming in from out of town. We’re fortunate to have them, considering the paucity of performance spaces for them to ply their craft.

One performer who seems to take it all in stride is trumpeter Ingrid Racine. Juggling motherhood in tandem with her mate, club DJ Alvin Hill, creating and exploring performance spaces, teaching, performing some administrative duties, and recently making her debut recording would be a bit overwhelming for anyone. Add to that the tricky parameters of playing a brass instrument and one has to admire how from day to day she fits all this in yet plays so beautifully, straddling the not so fine line between jazz tradition and her personal brand of modernity that appeals to a mostly younger -- but some older, universal -- jazz demographic.

She has listened to and incorporates many aspects of the 100 years of jazz; she embraces everything from early trad and swing to mainstream jazz, and be bop, fusion, folk forms, and even the hip hop of her generation.

It's rare for a jazz musician to be born, raised, and continuing to live in Ann Arbor. Racine graduated from the jazz program at Community High School, guided by Mike Grace in 2000. She obtained her BFA in Jazz Studies at the University of Michigan where she was instructed by the great Detroit saxophonist Donald Walden, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra and jazz trumpeter Bill Lucas.

By graduation, Racine was entrenched as a member of Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings, Mady Kouyate’s Heat of Africa, and the Detroit-based all female jazz group Straight Ahead. She toured and recorded with the Afro Beat large ensemble NOMO from 2003-2009, recording for the West Coast based Ubiquity label. In 2007, she returned to University of Michigan to study with vaunted jazz piano star Geri Allen while completing her Masters Degree in Improvisation. She also curated for three years the summer outdoor series of shows on the patio of the Gandy Dancer.

Other associations include collaborations with Marion Hayden, the Paul Keller Orchestra, Wendell Harrison, the Heather Black Project, Jesse Kramer's Juice Box and Ethan Davidson. She’s also been heard with the Gin Dandies.

Ingrid Racine was working professionally during her days as a student. Her playing has fit in with trad jazz groups like P.O.R.K - Phil Oglivy’s Rhythm Kings led by James Dapogny, the Paul Keller Orchestra and Women In Jazz ensembles. While far from petite, Racine handles her brass trumpet with a savvy that has recalled veterans twice her age such as Freddie Hubbard, Jack Walrath or Valery Ponamarev, while also adding some of the ethereal qualities of the late Kenny Wheeler.

As a composer, Racine is also asserting herself, as evidenced by the release of her independent Kickstarter funded debut CD Concentric Circles. She’s a little on the funk side of jazz, can swing as hard as she needs to, and sings on occasion delightfully. Her recent hit performance at the A2 Jazz Fest with her regular quartet, numerous club dates, and her regular gig every Sunday for brunch at the Gandy Dancer has shown her to be a reliable player that delivers consistently. In a world dominated by male instrumentalists, Racine is proving she is a leader among women or any gender in jazz, a contingent that is finally ascending with rapid and overdue recognition.

Her regular band with guitarist Chuck Newsome, bassist Ben Rolston, and drummer Rob Avsharian are proving that practice does indeed make perfect, especially hearing the quartet at the Gandy Dancer. On the CD she’s joined on select tracks by rising star keyboardist Ian Finkelstein and veteran trombonist Vincent Chandler.

The fluid motion of her horn lines belies the fact that hard metal pressing against teeth and lip skin embouchure is no easy task, and can eventually be damaging, yet she takes care of business on all of these levels to emerge as perhaps the premier female jazz player in this era and this region.

She recalls her early days listening to funk and ska music. “In ninth grade it was the British second wave - The Specials and English Beat. Then I went backwards to the Jamaican stuff. There were strong Community High school bands back then. I played in an all-female punk band Vomica, named from the homeopathic remedy, and The Brewts, whose drummer was Barrett Miller, Ben Miller from Destroy All Monsters’ son.”

The unlikely bridge between the harder edged music and jazz was Chet Baker. “My brother was in the CHS Jazz band and the rockabilly group Lucky Haskins. Justin Walter and Ben Jansson were in his band - great jazz players. It started for me with Chet Baker on records, something that was accessible to me, and someone singing, and the playing. I heard a Thelonious Monk compilation record which I listened to death. Then I was in Sandy Machonochie’s jazz band at Tappan Middle School and she made me take improvised solos against my better judgment."

The juxtaposition of working simultaneously with James Dapogny a.k.a. Phil Oglivy, and NOMO as a bridge between Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington to Fela Kuti might seem disconnected, but Ingrid Racine considers it a blessing. “For NOMO, it was cool kids playing at dance parties, but when I was hungry for gigs I sat in and got my butt kicked for the first two years with P.O.R.K."

Her career path has led her to the long overdue solo recording Concentric Circles, the culmination and an offshoot of her 12 year, regular Sunday brunch gig at the Gandy Dancer, where she has honed her playing and singing. “I feel like writing-wise I go through phases. I’ll book a gig and challenge myself to write all new tunes. So this batch of music with this band goes back to 2012 at The Raven’s Club. I knew the vibe I wanted to go with. So over the course of a few years we only played it a few times. Then there was music we did at the Elk’s Lodge. So the CD is an amalgamation of two writing periods."

“I’m not a big wailer, a high note player. My approach to the instrument is more forgiving. Just the way I hear things is more lyrical. I even didn’t want to think about it being a so-called jazz record, because I didn’t want that pressure of being virtuosic."

Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of 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.

Ingrid Racine & Friends perform every Sunday for brunch at the Gandy Dancer, 401 Depot St., from approximately 10 am - 2 pm. For dining reservations, call 769-0592. Ingrid also performs every Sunday with the Heather Black Project at the Ravens Club, 207 S. Main St., from 8 pm - 11 pm.

Ingrid is also leading an ongoing Music Production workshop presented by All Arts Access at AADL on Tuesday, October 25, November 8 and 22, 2016 at the Downtown Library.

Preview: Screw It: Doin' Time on the Line presented by Theatre Nova

Tim Campos, doin' his time.

Tim Campos, doin' his time.

A new one-person show, Screw It: Doin' Time on the Line, tells the story of an artist, broke from following his performing arts dreams, who gets an assembly line factory job in order to get back on his feet. Written and performed by native Detroiter Tim Campos, the show runs October 27-30 at Theatre Nova.

Campos portrays more than 50 different characters in this close-up view of factory life, drawing from his personal experiences during his years working on Ford Motor Company assembly lines in Saline, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois. Fast-paced and funny, the show is peppered with explicit language, absurdity, and emotion.

Directed by Midwestern director and actor Antoine McKay, the show features original music by Ryan Bentley, Ray Smetana (former Ford Saline Parts Plant worker, now working at Dearborn Truck), and band Quasar Wut-Wut.

Sara Wedell is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Performance are Thursday, Oct. 27 through Saturday, Oct. 29 at 8 pm, and Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2 pm. Tickets are $15 and are on sale at the Theatre Nova box office and online. Theatre Nova is located at 410 West Huron, tucked away in the parking lot across from the YMCA in downtown Ann Arbor.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #616


Fabulous Fiction Firsts #616

The buzz around Brit(tany) Bennett's debut The Mothers* * * is hard to ignore. Vogue and The Washington Post are not alone in their over-the-moon praises, so richly deserved.

A wise and sad coming-of-age story set largely in Oceanside, CA, it is about the tangled destinies of three teens growing up in a tight-knit African-American community. 17 year-old Nadia Turner, smart, pretty, and ambitious is getting out - with a full ride to Michigan, away from her silent father, and away from the grief of losing her mother to suicide; but not before she realizes she is pregnant by the pastor's son, Luke. Her decision to abort creates a web of secrets that will haunt them for decades to come.

Years later when Nadia, now a successful attorney returns home to care for her ailing father, her reunion with Luke threatens his marriage to Aubrey, Nadia's childhood friend as well as the peace of their church community.

Narrated by Nadia and a Greek chorus of gossipy 'Mothers' from the local Upper Room Chapel, who "(f)ar from reliably offering love, protection, and care,...cause all the trouble." -Kirkus Reviews

"There’s much blame to go around, and Bennett distributes it equally. But she also shows an extraordinary compassion for her flawed characters." -Publishers Weekly

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Preview: Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers at the Blind Pig


Rainbow Seekers

Someday you'll find it, Rainbow Seekers.

Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers were just in Ann Arbor a couple months ago to play a rousing show at Sonic Lunch, and they’ll be making the trip across the state again to play the Pig on October 21. Spread out all over Michigan, from Kalamazoo to Lansing to metro Detroit, all the band members have day jobs and then travel together most weekends to perform. It makes for a hectic lifestyle, but they don’t seem to mind. In an interview this summer, Hertler poked fun at the popular phrase, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” “It’s bullshit,” he said. “We work our asses off, and it's hard work, but we think it's worth it."

The band boasts of their ability to “make a sprightly young groove doctor out of anyone,” and with their folksy, funky, Motown-like jams, it’s a promise that they can uphold. The seven-man band traces their roots back to 2008, when lead singer Joe Hertler dropped out of music school at Central Michigan and started trying to put together his own band. He met guitarist Ryan Hoger and bassist Kevin Pritchard in Lansing in 2010 and with that, the Rainbow Seekers began to assemble. Saxophonist Aaron Stinson, violist Joshua Holcomb, and drummers Micah Bracken and Rick Hale all felt the pull of the rainbow and joined the band over the next four years.

Joe Hertler et al believe in providing their audiences with a true “experience,” which is why they don’t only play songs from their albums, the most recent of which, Terra Incognita, came out last year. Instead, they play a mix of old and new material, and improvise on stage, too. Typically dressed in bright clothing and costumes—Stinson sometimes puts a giant sunflower in his sax—Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers instill their infectious energy and good cheer into the audience, often accompanied by a giant inflatable rainbow that they drag on stage with them. Audience members are always encouraged to dance, clap and sing along. “Having a good time is contagious, and we try to spread that,” Hoger said earlier this year. At their Sonic Lunch performance this summer, they got almost everyone up to the front of the stage to dance to “Future Talk,” one of the best songs off of Terra Incognita.

The band is planning to release as-yet-unnamed new album, which Hertler claims will be their best yet, in early 2017.

Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers are playing at The Blind Pig on Friday, October 21. Doors are at 9:00 pm. Tickets are $15. Ages 18+. For more information, visit .

PowerArt! Profile: Cathy Jacobs


PowerArt box design by Cathy Jacobs (left) Interface I by Cathy Jacobs, oil on canvas, 36” x 36” 2012 (right)

Starry Night by Cathy Jacobs, traffic box at the corner of Miller & Main St. in Ann Arbor, print on vinyl. (left) Interface I by Cathy Jacobs, oil on canvas, 36” x 36” 2012. (right)

Cathy Jacobs doesn't remember not being an artist. As a child she sat at the vanity of her upstairs bedroom drawing obsessively for hours.

"I was always drawing from the time I was 3 or 4. When I was 7 or so, I thought I can be an artist! I had a vision of a sort of Salvador Dali character in a beret and a pencil mustache."In fact, she remembers dressing up as the surrealist master for Halloween one year. This seemed perfectly natural to her, since art was a man's world at the time.

"I always thought I’d grow up to be a man” she says, laughing.

The image Starry Sky that was chosen for the PowerArt Project box now installed at Miller and Main in Ann Arbor, comes directly from her childhood memories. She vividly recalls looking out of her bedroom window at the night sky and the houses in her Ferndale neighborhood. "I didn't like that they were so uniform, so I invented columns and balconies for them in my mind," she says.

Jacobs' interest in painting and drawing was a constant throughout her childhood and adolescence and was followed by college art studies. She studied painting at Wayne State University where she earned a B.F.A. and continued at Eastern Michigan University where she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Painting degree in 2015.

Her paintings from this period are figurative and show a strong interest in fantasy and storytelling. Fairytale archetypes and mysterious situation, puppets, dolls and queens populate her pictures. They have the quality of half-remembered dreams, fascinating and just out of reach.

Her work at this time was well composed and expertly painted, but Jacobs felt dissatisfied. She wanted the color, translucency and light in her paintings to escape from the picture plane and from narrative imagery. She experimented with various sheer or translucent materials--metal screen, gauzy silk and the like--collaged onto her paintings. The kind of lightness and atmosphere that she wanted seemed impossible to achieve with the media at hand.

But then, in 2014, Cathy Jacobs discovered weaving. Finally, this new medium allowed her to escape the painted canvas and the drawn image.

"It immediately took hold of my imagination. Through weaving, I found that I could express the full spectrum of colors and moods, but in real 3-dimensional space...I learned weaving and all of a sudden all the things I was thinking about in my paintings, the depth you would get through layers of color and translucency, I found I could get in 3 dimensions."

Portal by Cathy Jacobs, handwoven linen, aluminum screen, mirror, metal hinges, 75” x 42” x 12”, 2015.

Portal (3 views) by Cathy Jacobs, handwoven linen, aluminum screen, mirror, metal hinges, 75” x 42” x 12”, 2015.

Cathy Jacobs sees the way before her clearly now. "My current focus is in weaving panels of linen that, when layered together create vibrating fields of color." She has already had some success, exhibiting her woven panels at Sofa Chicago 2015 on Navy Pier, and in the 2016 Architectural Digest Design Show in New York City. This fall, her work will be featured in World of Threads in Ontario, Canada.

Jacobs enjoys both the process of weaving and "the sense of finality and completion that comes when I finish a piece“ She seems to have found the means and medium to bring to the real world the contents of her imagination. Every working artist knows that this clarity is a temporary thing in a long creative life. Cathy Jacobs is a young artist and the future may see changes in her art practice, but for now she is happy in her woven world.
"It feels like a really good fit," she says, smiling.

K.A. Letts is an artist and art blogger. She has shown her work regionally and nationally and in 2015 won the Toledo Federation of Art Societies Purchase Award while participating in the TAAE95 Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can find more of her work at

Take a walk and see the PowerArt! boxes up close and personal; a map of PowerArt! box locations is available to download. PowerArt is a partnership between the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (AADDA) and the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission (AAPAC), The Arts Alliance is managing the selection and installation of artwork by local artists on power boxes throughout downtown Ann Arbor. You'll find more info about the project at the Arts Alliance website.

Review: UMS presents 'Layla and Majnun,' Mark Morris Dance Group & The Silk Road Ensemble



UMS presents Layla and Majnun at the Power Center. / Photo by Susana Miller.

Choreographer Mark Morris notes that the ancient story of Layla and Majnun presented by UMS at the Power Center this weekend -- a Persian romance retold across the Mid-East since the 12th-century -- is one of profound, abundant, eternal love, and that a full staging of it has the potential to make it more accessible to a larger audience. Given the western penchant for a good tragic love story -- think Romeo and Juliet -- this tale of young lovers so desperate for each other that the man is driven mad certainly has potential cultural traction here. With his production of Layla and Majnun, Morris succeeds in bringing this story to life for audiences who may be unfamiliar with it and in so doing adds his distinct mark to a tale that has already had many hands on it.

Consider all the permutations of this ancient tale that are present in Morris’s production. Its musical source is a 1908 Azerbaijani opera, Leyli and Majnun, that in turn is based on a 16th-century poetic setting of the ancient story. The opera was the first instance of western symphonic music combined with mugham¸ a traditional Azerbaijani improvisational form performed by vocalists accompanied by frame drums, lute, and spike fiddle. Although the opera is beloved in Azerbaijan, it has been reconceived for this production. Renowned mugham singer Alim Quasimov, in collaboration with the Silk Road Ensemble, has compressed the three-and-a-half-hour opera into a more easily digestible seventy minutes, distilled around Majnun’s solos and his duets with Layla. Furthermore, elements that were kept separate in the original opera - mugham and western instruments, improvisation and written parts - are here integrated. To this story many times retold and this music many times re-imagined, Morris adds his dancing.

The musicians - Qasimov and his daughter, Fargana Qasimova, with the Silk Road Ensemble - fill the center of the stage while the dancers weave around and between them. The story unfolds in five acts: Love and Separation, The Parents’ Disapproval, Sorrow and Despair, Layla’s Unwanted Wedding, and The Lover’s Demise.

The tone of the verses, present as a libretto in the printed program, is sustained, seldom varying even as the story progresses from act to act. The lovers continuously profess their agonized passion, but Morris’s choreography refracts this one-noted desperation. In Act I, Layla and Majnun glow with smiles. They rebound from broad and deep pliés and extend glorious legs, testing their connection with one another from different angles and at different distances across the stage. They play a little game, encircling each other with their arms. This merry interaction directly contrasts the verses of Act I - “My heart is heavy because I am alone…I feel like a nightingale that cries in pain…” In so doing, it creates a satisfying starting place; theatrically, the story has somewhere to go.

The dancing also adds breadth to the characters. The full cast of twelve is almost always on stage, but different dancers take on the roles of Layla and Majnun in each of the first four acts. The different aspects of these characters that emerge over time and through circumstance are made evident by the different humans who embody them. Stacy Martorana’s Layla of Act I is exuberant and expansive, whereas Nicole Sabella’s Act II Layla becomes more restrained.
With the work of story-telling done by the printed libretto (and largely superfluous projected supertitles), Morris’s choreography only occasionally employs mime-like “literal” movement: Layla’s unwanted husband shakes his fist at Majnun, or Layla reaches longingly toward her lover. More often, the dancing relies on a more visceral meaning-making: as Majnun goes mad, he pitches backward with knees bent deep and arms spread wide. When her parents disapprove, Layla curtsies low and slow, her fingers and wrists tracing sinuous curlicues, but then finds herself standing high on a step, pushing the air away from her. As Layla’s Unwanted Wedding unfolds, the stage is flanked by rows of unison dancers whose pert and precise footwork and shifting facings manage to evoke both a folk dance and the inevitability of tradition and ceremony.

Sometimes, as with that wedding scene, the ensemble of dancers is a community. They herd the lovers away from each other, or watch and seem to whisper about them. Sometimes they play the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on or translating the actions of the central characters. In Sorrow and Despair, they stand linked together, heads whipping and rolling from side to side, on and on, creating a frenzy of obsession. Sometimes they are all Laylas and all Majnuns, reflecting the actions of the “real” Layla and Majnun.

The resolution of Layla and Majnun’s desperate affair is, of course, death. In the final act, all four Laylas and all four Majnuns are present, but their respective demises seem asymmetric. My impression is of all the Laylas descending together to sit with bowed heads, but each Majnun has a brief solo before surrendering to the floor. (After all, the story tells that it’s Majnun who officially goes crazy; Layla just expires.) A clarinet solo draws all the dancers up to their feet, and each pair of Layla and Majnun meets briefly before exiting. I want to think they have been united in death, or that their earthly love has been subsumed in a divine one, but the final image is of a pair of female dancers returning to extinguish two of the lanterns that have been burning throughout the performance.

If there’s a shortcoming in the production, it lies with an uneven distribution of restraint. In comparison to the wildness, the near-hysteria, of the singers’ improvised solos, the choreography sometimes seems safe, tame, comparatively unimpassioned. Perhaps it’s a function of spatial confinement; the Silk Road musicians and mugham singers take up a good chunk of the stage and the dancers have only limited paths available. Or maybe it’s the nature of the rehearsed versus the spontaneous; when each of the Majnuns performed his last, brief solo, I glimpsed an unleashing that paralleled that of the singers’ and I suspect it’s because those solos are largely improvisatory. Mine is a small complaint, though; this Layla and Majnun is a worthy installment in the story’s evolving history as a performance work. Its reconceived music and eloquent dancing serve the famous story and render it quite legible to a non-Azerbaijani audience.

From 1993-2004, Veronica Dittman Stanich danced in New York and co-produced The Industrial Valley Celebrity Hour in Brooklyn. Now, PhD in hand, she writes about dance and other important matters.

Layla and Majnun continues through Saturday, October 15 at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. For more information and tickets, visit:

Review: U-M production finds perfection in nostalgic ‘Drowsy Chaperone’


Drowsy Chaperone Cast

The Drowsy Chaperone cast comes to life. / Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

A man with gray flecked hair, dressed in an old cardigan sweater sits in the dark complaining about modern theater and modern life in general. Things just ain’t what they used to be.

This is the beginning of magic, a near perfect production of The Drowsy Chaperone by the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre.

The man in the chair is sharing his weary view of the world and his obsession with a recording of a 1928 musical, from back in the day when musicals were fun. That musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, is a fizzy, frivolous fluff with the usual stock characters, thin and predictable plot, jazz inspired score and a fine example to the man in the chair of all the sweetness that has been lost in the world.

As the man tells us the story of the musical, the musical comes vividly to life in his nostalgia filled apartment. He swoons over every nuance of story and every piece of stage business and recounts the back stories for all the original stars, rising diva and fading diva, vaudeville comedy team and notorious womanizer, secretly gay leading man and charming old pros who have seen better days.

Director Mark Madama has assembled a terrific cast, each perfectly fit to the character they play. The style is arch, satirical but never so overplayed that it loses touch with what might have been a smashing opening night on Broadway those many years ago. The Drowsy Chaperone, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, uses that happy style of musical theater to poke fun at nostalgia but also offer an ode to entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

The 1928 play concerns the romance of a Broadway star and a businessman, their impending marriage, the star’s woozy “chaperone,” a couple of bakers (who are really gangsters), a producer afraid of losing his star, a chorus girl angling to take her place, a Latin lover, a dotty lady and her droll “underling.” Sound familiar? And every piece goes together like clockwork. Every performance is choice.

Hannah Lynne Miller is the effervescent Janet Van de Graaff, the star about to throw away the spotlight for marriage. Miller is a riot as she poses for the press, sputters between devotion for her new beau and anxiety over losing her celebrity fix. She’s a fine singer who delivers sincerity even on a song that the man in the chair warns has awful lyrics.

Equally compelling is Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as the title character, the chaperone. She is a deft comedian, with arched eyes and pained sophistication. Her singing shows great range and precise, sensitive phrasing needed to deliver all the humor and sly emotion of her “anthem” “As We Stumble Along.”

Charlie Patterson is hilarious as the egotistic, posturing Adolpho, self-styled Latin lover. He has a love song to himself “I Am Adolpho” that he delivers with just the right amount of clueless self-congratulation.

Drowsy Chaperone Collage

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, the drowsy chaperone. / Riley McFarland and Jo Ellen Pellman. // Photos by Peter Smith Photography.

Kyle McClellan as the potential groom matches the self-loving ego of his bride to be with comic charm. But he also sings and dances superbly. McClellen and Christopher Campbell as his diligent best man perform a great tap dance routine to the song “Cold Feet.”

The tap dance is interrupted by the underling, a butler in the tradition of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, always one step ahead of the upper crusty. Aidan Ziegler-Hansen delivers his lines with precision timing and a bit of droll disdain. He also goes a mean little tap dance.

His usual partner is the ever-confused Mrs. Tottendale, played by Isbel Stein. Stein is amusingly spacey, dressed in a long-dated dress to match her bafflement. She and Ziegler-Hansen sing a goofy love song, “Love is Always Lovely in the End.”

Riley McFarland is the producer, a man in a constant state of despair as he is hounded by gangsters and a pushy chorine. He brings a bit of authority to a funny character. Jo Ellen Pellman plays Kitty, the “dumb blonde” stereotype, to a tee. Her voice cracks, her eyes roll, her body shimmies. It all works.

What also works is the clockwork timing of Joseph Sammour and Simon Longnight as the comic gangsters in both their comic wordplay (a stereotype of ’20s musicals) and their dizzy dance number “Toledo Surprise.”

Another post Lindbergh element to musicals of those days was an aviator, but here an aviatrix with a booming singing voice, well played by Cydney Clark.

The heart and soul of this production is Alexander Sherwin, that man in the chair. His voice may remind you of David Sedaris, a hint of sadness behind every laugh line. Sherwin takes us deep into this man who loves the theater and hates what has happened to it. He knows the story of every performer, the way kids know the story behind sports figures and rappers. He harbors ill will to the modern world and slowly, surely we find out why. Sherwin’s performance is impeccable and gives this bit of fluff its deeper meaning.

The musical direction and the jazz style orchestra under Jason DeBord is outstanding, especially in its ability to give punctuation to the humor on stage. Mara Newbery Greer’s choreography is terrific whether handing the lively tap numbers, a tricky skate routine or the ensemble in full motion.

Caleb Levengood’s set is a masterful tribute to nostalgia, a green colored parlor covered with star photos, posters and playbills and the comfy furniture of another era. The set is also well suited to the quick scene changes of the musical within the play. But there are some subtle touches that get at the heart of the man in the chair, like a row of pill bottles on his side table.

This is a big show, full of humor within the musical and at the expense of the musical. This is an ode to the giddy, goofy '20s musical in all its glory and the UM production grabs all that humor and goes deep into back story for a little more. Bravo!

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.

The Drowsy Chaperone continues at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre Friday through Sunday Oct. 14-16 and Thursday-Sunday Oct. 20-23. For tickets call the box office at (734)764-2538 or go online to

Review: Detroit Public Theatre's Murder Ballad Slays


Murder Ballad

Murder Ballad hits it off with audiences.

The Detroit Public Theatre hit the ground running less than a year ago, after the vision of creators Courtney Burkett and Sarah Winkler finally came to fruition. The DPT shares its home with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in the Max M. Fischer Music Center in the heart of Midtown. Now in their second season, the DPT offers audiences four new plays, all new to Michigan and all, the company believes, relevant to Detroit audiences. The first of these, running from September 28 to October 23 and directed by Burkett, is Murder Ballad, a rock musical about love, lust, rage, passion, obsession, and jealousy that got its start at the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club.

Described as “a dark thriller with a razor’s edge,” the musical stars Arianna Bergamaschi as Sara, a broken-hearted New Yorker trying to rebuild her life, only to have her former love, Tom (Rusty Mewha, a current Resident Artist at the Purple Rose Theatre) continue to haunt her dreams and ultimately, her reality.

The play opens ominously: as the audience takes their seats in the small Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Hall where the DPT shows take place, a single spotlight shines down on a pool table at the center of the room with a baseball bat lying across it. A live band, comprised of Shawn Neal on drums, Mike Shriver on bass, and Jeff Sufamosto on guitar, is set up at the back of the stage and starts the show off with a crash of rock music. It’s great fun to see the band throughout the whole show, and they offer a dramatic backdrop to the scenery in the foreground.

The main conflict takes place quickly: Sara and Tom are in love (demonstrated by a series of sexy scenes where they crawl around on top of a bar and a pool table), but he breaks her heart. Stumbling home drunk and devastated, Sara meets Michael (Eric Gutman), who comforts her and the two eventually marry and have a child (This child, “Frankie” is invisible throughout the play, although the characters engage with it frequently, which is mildly off-putting.). Sara can’t get Tom off her mind though, and the two reconnect years later with disastrous results. Hint: the baseball bat makes a reappearance.

The highlight of the show is actually the nameless Narrator, played by Arielle Crosby, who takes audiences breath away with her hugely powerful voice. Fed up with all the other characters, she alternately encourages and discourages their actions through song and movement, wielding the baseball bat as a prop, although the others rarely interact with her. Bergamaschi also has a strong voice, although her attempts to mask her native Italian accent seemed ill-advised, as they somewhat affect her ability to sing to her full potential and it would not have detracted from the show for her character to have a non-American accent.

Overall, Murder Ballad is a fun performance to watch despite its somewhat predictable storyline and a lack of truly memorable music. The excellent set design and choreography keep the show moving, and the buildup to the climax of the show is well-executed, with everything concluding in a neat 75 minutes. And of course, who doesn’t love a little murder, passion and rock’n’roll?

Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library who only likes to use baseball bats to play baseball.

Murder Ballad runs from September 28-October 23, 2016 at the Detroit Public Theatre in Detroit. Tickets and more information are available at their website. DPT's second season will continue with Dot, running November 16-December 11, 2016, The Holler Sessions, running February 1-26, 2017 and The Harassment of Iris Malloy, running May 3-28, 2017.

Ann Arbor Area Artists at ArtPrize 8


New Century Shadow Dancers at Art Prize 2012

ArtPrize 2016 took center stage at Grand Rapids September 21 through October 9, 2016. (New Century Shadow Dancers from Dallas at ArtPrize 2012).

It's official – ArtPrize 8, the "radically open international art competition" in Grand Rapids, Michigan, now boasts the largest attendance to an art event on planet Earth. The 19-day event is now over for this year, the votes have been tallied and the 2 Grand Prize Winners (as well as the winners of the Category Prizes) have been announced. 

Visitor numbers for this year have yet to be tallied, but from a mere 200,000 visitors in 2009, last year's event drew over 400,000 visitors from all 50 states and 47 countries. Clearly, ArtPrize has been and continues to be a wildly successful and popular art event that has put Grand Rapids on the cultural map.

Artist participation has fallen slightly from a high of 1,713 in 2010 to this year's 1,453. In a tacit admission that the event may be more of an unmixed blessing for the town than it is for the artists, additional prize money has been added to the two whopping $200,000 Grand Prizes in the form of 8 smaller $12,500 prizes in 2-dimensional, 3-dimensional, time-based, and installation categories (both voted by the public and juried)–plus a juried prize for best curated venue. Grants totaling $280,000 have also been awarded to artists, curators and venues for fabricating and installing site-specific artworks and exhibits.

Five entries from the Ann Arbor/Ypsi area were on view in Grand Rapids this year, and they are representative of the diverse backgrounds and professional experience of ArtPrize artists overall:

Invasive Species by Shiny Seed

Invasive Species by Shiny Seed.

One Ann Arbor/Ypsi entry, Invasive Species by Shiny Seed, managed to make it into the prestigious final round of 20 for the $200,000 Public Choice Award, although the top prize ultimately went to Wounded Warrior Dogs by James Mellick of Milford Center, Ohio. (The Juried Grand Prize went to The Bureau of Personal Belonging by Stacey Kirby of Durham, North Carolina.)

Invasive Species, a giant aluminum-wrapped and LED-festooned tree, is a collaborative effort by software/electrical engineer and sculptor Gene Foulk and Casey Dixon, artist and shop manager of Maker Works in Ann Arbor.  Invasive Species displays in abundance the qualities that can seize and hold the attention of the ArtPrize public and win their votes. It is figurative, centrally located, monumental in scale.  It also demonstrates the technical mastery of the artists, is meticulously crafted and expresses commonly shared values in its environmental theme.

Oracle by Janet Kelman

Oracle by Janet Kelman.

ArtPrize 8 is Ann Arbor glass artist Janet Kelman’s first experience with the event. She has been creating works of art in glass since she fell in love with the material while studying chemistry in college. Her wall-hung relief/assemblage Oracle was installed on the second floor of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

Kelman is drawn to water and images of water, and her latest work is an exploration of that fascination. Oracle is one of a series on this theme. It is deceptively simple in form but complex in execution. Composed of 16 separate layers of fused glass displayed at varying distances from the wall, the panels overlap and interrelate in color and shape. She describes her process, saying, "I create small glass pieces using threads of glass, enameled images, crushed glass, whatever else I can dream up, and assemble them in layers on a kiln shelf.  The finished fused glass always provides surprises, its constant allure."

Other work by Janet Kelman can be seen at WSG Gallery in Ann Arbor and Vale Craft Gallery in Chicago.  

How to Draw the Human Eye by Megan Foldenauer.

Megan Foldenauer, whose time-based drawing and video How to Draw the Human Eye was on view at the Women's City Club, has lived and worked as an artist in Ypsilanti for 11 years. Her virtuosic pencil drawings of a wide variety of single human eyes arranged in a grid around a small video screen make excellent use of her background in anatomy and medical illustration. She claims she has always known how to draw: "I'm one of those 'all of the sudden I could draw' types. A gift, a calling, a life’s purpose, whatever you wanna call it – I didn’t have to work-work-work to be able to draw… it’s just something I can always remember doing."

Pallet by J. Daniel Strong

Pallet by J. Daniel Strong.

A freestanding diptych by J. Daniel Strong was installed in a corner park a bit off the beaten path during ArtPrize. Strong is an Ann Arbor muralist who usually works on commission. The imagery on the front of Pallet is based on Roman paintings in Pompeii, with an array of quotes on the back that refer to humans and their interaction with nature over time.

Sunset MonMartre, 1896 by Peter Warburton

Sunset MonMartre, 1896 by Peter Warburton.

I was pleased, and a little surprised, to see an artwork by Peter Warburton prominently displayed on the main floor of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.  I have seen Warburton's "paintings" from duct tape from time to time in coffee shops around Ann Arbor and Dexter, and have always been charmed by them. A self-taught artist, he has often taken works by Vincent Van Gogh as inspiration for his pictures because he feels a spiritual kinship with the troubled French Impressionist. In Sunset, Monmartre, 1896, he evokes the jumpy stippling of Van Gogh's brushwork; the sun shining over the windmill in the picture mimics a giant eye glaring at the landscape below.

The participating artists’ opinions of ArtPrize experience are, finally, as varied as the individuals themselves, from an enthusiastic “pretty awesome” to a less positive “I’ll never do that again” and everything in between. The key to evaluation of the ArtPrize experience though, is in the management of expectations. With only 11 prizes to divide among over 14,00 entries, artists must weigh whether exposure of their work, engagement with the public and a line in their resume justifies the considerable expenditure of money and time required. What isn’t in doubt is the genuinely positive--and even transformative--effect ArtPrize has had over the last eight years for the city of Grand Rapids and its citizens.

K.A. Letts is an artist and art blogger. She has shown her work regionally and nationally and in 2015 won the Toledo Federation of Art Societies Purchase Award while participating in the TAAE95 Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can find more of her work at

ArtPrize is an annual event in Grand Rapids, MI. For more information about ArtPrize go to

Preview: Theatre Bizarre: The Greatest Masquerade on Earth


Theatre Bizarre

Fanning the flames at Theatre Bizarre. Photos by Trever Long.

Theatre Bizarre, the "greatest masquerade on earth," returns to the Masonic Temple in Detroit this month for elaborate, extravagant, eerie debauchery. The annual event has grown in size enormously since its origin as essentially a backyard Halloween party 17 years ago and now takes place across eight floors of the Masonic. The brainchild of mastermind John Dunivant, Theatre Bizarre previously took place in an abandoned area near the Michigan State Fairgrounds before being unceremoniously shut down by city officials in 2010 (before that, they’d been kicked out of the Russell Industrial Complex). Now completely legal, the Masonic seems to be the perfect home for the event, and this year, for the first time, organizers have expanded it to take place across two weekends rather than just one.

Part circus, part carnival, part burlesque and fetish show, and part, yes, masquerade, Theatre Bizarre is unlike most parties taking place this time of year. Illusionists, carnival acts, dancers, musicians, and spontaneous theatrics greet attendees around every turn, along with mind-bendingly detailed scenery and exhibitions. Last year, a "Ghost Train," lit by a single strobe light and conducted by a silent masked man, took guests on a careening mini-roller coaster ride around the Masonic's foggy seventh floor, while several floors below, burlesque dancers emerged from the mouth of a giant devil and strutted down a long catwalk. Elsewhere, taxidermy animals held court over long buffet tables, mimes and jugglers moved among the crowd, and acrobats leaped over furniture. The Grand Ballroom is often the largest room at the Bizarre, and in previous years has been filled with an array of carnival games, treat stands and sideshow performances, including an ice cream shop serving Theatre Bizarre-inspired flavors.

Attendees are required to come in costume; in fact, you'll be turned away at the door with no refund if you show up in street clothes. Costumes run the gamut from homemade affairs, cobbled together from secondhand store finds to expensive, custom-ordered creations. You won't find Captain America or Minnie Mouse wandering around Theatre Bizarre either; the emphasis is on costumes that are weird, satanic, sexy, occult, eerie and/or decadent.

Theatre Bizarre firewalker

Fire walk with me.

There are four separate Theatre Bizarre events this year, two Gala Masquerades on Fridays and two Historic Theatre Bizarres on Saturdays. The more expensive Gala Masquerade is a formal masquerade ball with a maximum attendance of only 450 people. Dinner and drinks are included in the ticket price, and formal attire, along with masks that conceal one's identity are a must. Guests can enjoy a cocktail reception, strolling dinner, pockets of entertainment around the Masonic, and dancing. The main Theatre Bizarre event takes place on Saturdays, and is less formal, although many still include masks in their costumes. This event is much larger, with attendance pushing 2,000, 5 separate main stages, and 20 performance areas, all of which remain active until the event closes at 4 am.

Theatre Bizarre is particularly unique for its lack of corporate sponsors. Dunivant and those he works with to create the event are artists, and don’t want logos interrupting the world they create or jolting visitors back to reality. Putting the event on at the Masonic is no easy feat: not only do sets and architectural features need to be built elsewhere and reassembled on site, but the wiring in the building is so old that Dunivant and his co-creators run the risk of frying it if they used it to support the electrical demands of the show. Instead, cables and wiring—thousands of feet of them—have to be routed through back hallways, walls, and vents. But Dunivant keeps making it happen every year, and hundreds of devoted attendees are glad. Still, who knows how much longer they’ll be able to pull off this outrageous event, so if there’s ever a year to go experience the magic, this is surely it.

Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library. She is super excited to wear a giant horned headdress to Theatre Bizarre this year.

Theatre Bizarre takes place October 14-15 and October 21-22 at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. Tickets range from $95-$260 and can be purchased online, where you can also find out more information about the event.