Preview: December Documentaries


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"



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'


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.

Preview: The Saline Area Players present 'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever'


Kickshaw Staged Readings

The horrible Herdmans. Photo by Aaron C Wade

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse.” —opening paragraph of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the classic 1972 holiday tale by Barbara Robinson.

It is cold here in Ann Arbor the week after Thanksgiving at the end of a highly political and contentious November. Black Friday sales have been stressful and extremely hard on the wallet. It’s time to enjoy some light entertainment.

It’s time for an evening with the horrible Herdmans.

Review: Encore Theatre performs a practically perfect 'Mary Poppins'


Sebastian Gerstner and Olivia Hernandez

Sebastian Gerstner and Olivia Hernandez on a jolly holiday at Encore Musical Theatre. / Photo by Michele Anliker Photography

One word sums up the Encore Musical Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins.

You know the word, so sing out.


Encore has chosen the practically perfect musical for the holiday season with just the right mix of song, dance, and magic (and, of course, a spoonful of sugar).

The musical is an adaptation of the beloved 1964 Walt Disney movie based on books by P.L. Travers. The musical’s book by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) follows the basic story from the film but puts a bit more emphasis on the social context of the period, Britain in 1910. A few new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have been added but pale next to the luminous score of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, which are still the songs you’ll leave humming.

The story is simple but has some deeper lessons to convey. The Banks family seems the essence of middle class propriety. Father is an overworked and fusty banker. Mother is a one-time actress who is feeling a bit confined by the tedium of being “the lady of house” with little to do. Their children are getting out of hand and driving off nanny after nanny until Mary Poppins arrives in the knick of time.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #621: Spotlight on Women's Fiction Debuts


Fabulous Fiction Firsts #621

Nine Women, One Dress by Jane L. Rosen. This LBD, darling of the season (picked no less by WWD) is 90-year-old Morris Siegel's swan song, capping a long career as the celebrated pattern-maker for the Max Hammer line. But before he can truly retire, his LBD will touch 9 women's lives in unexpected ways.

From a Bloomingdale’s salesgirl dumped for a socialite to a secretary secretly in love with her widowed boss. From a young model fresh from rural Alabama to the jaded private detective who might have a chance to restore her faith in true love. From an unemployed Brown grad faking a fabulous life on social media to a mean girl who would die for the dress. Their encounter with the dress will transform them in ways beyond their imagination.

"Rosen’s debut novel is rich in relationships, written with clarity and humor and surprise twists that bring the tale to a satisfying conclusion." (Kirkus Reviews). Charming and irresistible, Chick lit at its best.

Review: U of M's “First Crop” Chamber Jazz Ensembles Concert


Chamber Jazz

Jazz always seems to be the music that surprises me the most, with its playful syncopation, the clashes created by a few extra notes added to familiar chords, and the sheer ingenuity that comes from improvisation. On Sunday, I had the chance to be surprised by students in the chamber-jazz ensembles from the University of Michigan’s SMTD Jazz department, playing their own compositions and standards, and I came away with that warm-and-fuzzy feeling of having seen something enjoyable and unique. Hosted in the beautiful Stamps Auditorium on North Campus, it was a great space for the music, and the casual atmosphere was incredibly welcoming. The performers were still warming up on stage when I walked through the door — a serendipitous experience for myself and the others who decided to show up a bit early.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #620


Fabulous Fiction Firsts #620

"There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.” -Jean-Paul Sartre

In the tradition of great novels set in a single day, The Heart of Henry Quantum * follows an unhappily married 40-something SF advertising executive on December 23rd, as he wanders the city in search of a last-minute Christmas gift for his wife, Margaret.

Actually, it is not his heart (not immediately anyway) that the readers have to contend with, it is his mind - one that wanders. During a constant monologue, we learn about his youthful ambition (PhD, Philosophy), his marriage to Margaret, things he sees during the day, ideas that had come to him by chance. But much like Henry’s ever-wandering mind, his quest takes him in different and unexpected directions, including running into Daisy, his former lover, who made it clear during their impromptu lunch that she has never gotten over Henry.

Lest we feel sorry for Margaret, a high-power real estate broker... while Henry is wondering if Daisy might be the one who got away, she is heading out of the city on her own errand of the heart. Then we hear from Daisy, and finally Henry again as night falls. It will be a day of reflection, new choices, and change for all involved.

"With quick, witty dialogue and an expertly crafted stream-of-consciousness style, The Heart of Henry Quantum is a highly entertaining read that will remind readers of the power of one day to change a life." -Booklist

Writing for the first time as Pepper Harding, it is the pen name of a San Francisco writer currently living in Sonoma County. Highly recommended for book groups. Independent readers too, might find the thoughtful questions in the Reading Group Guide illuminating.

* = starred review

Review: Colm Tóibín at UMMA's Helmut Stern Auditorium


Colm Tóibín

Keep Colm and read on.

I’m tempted to say that it was standing room only at bestselling Irish author Colm Tóibín’s Thursday night reading – part of U-M’s Zell Visiting Writers Series – at UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium.

But that seems not quite accurate, since many attendees who didn’t arrive in time to grab one of the venue’s 185 seats instead settled themselves on the floor of both side aisles, as well as the back wall.

Yes, the place was packed, but those who carved out a space for themselves got to hear Tóibín read from his novels Brooklyn and Nora Webster while also offering additional commentary and information.

While reading sections from Brooklyn – the basis for a film that earned three major Oscar nominations (including best picture) in 2016 – Tóibín noted, “One of the interesting things is that, the earliest recordings we have of Irish traditional music mainly come from America. The best players, best fiddlers, best singers, best accordion players all came from the West of Ireland, which of course is the poorest part of the country. There were no recording studios, so they went to New York or Chicago, and people rented them recording studios by the hour.”

Many of these Irish musicians would work as manual laborers, too, so they often had a foot in two different worlds. Tóibín cited Joe Heaney specifically, calling him the greatest singer of his generation in Ireland.

“There’s a photo of him in a pub in Dublin, where tradition music is played,” said Tóibín. “There were these Americans from New York who were visiting Dublin and saw the photograph on the wall of this pub, and they said, ‘That’s our doorman, Joe!’ Yeah, that’s our singer, Joe.”

Regarding Nora Webster, Tóibín talked about how he’d abandoned it to work on Brooklyn, and why he struggled with it so.

“Part of the problem was, so much of the book Nora Webster comes from memory, and that memory … has no shape until you shape it,” said Tóibín. “And therefore, [I was always trying to think, ‘What’s this thing or that thing that happened? Would it be interesting in a book, or just interesting to me, for reasons of my own? What should I leave out? What should I put in? What scene will work dramatically, and what won’t? It took much longer than writing a novel … where you imagine somebody else, some other life, some set of rules and specific experiences that I hadn’t witnessed.”

One other problem was that the atmosphere of the novel felt more like the 50s than the 60s, so he finally stumbled upon a subtle but time-specific way to root Nora Webster in its appropriate era.

“Some year around this time, I think ’67 or ’68 or ’69, hair dye arrived in town,” said Tóibín. “And you’d call to a friend’s house, and his mother would come to the door, and it was like autumn had come to the door. Her hair would have gone copper color. … And every woman in the town, to a one, fell to this. it was an amazing episode, really.”

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.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #619: Spotlight on UK Mystery Debuts


Fabulous Fiction Firsts #619

Referencing the New Testament parable, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep * by Joanna Cannon is set during the scorching summer of 1976 when 10 year-olds Grace and Tilly take it upon themselves to look for their neighbor, friendly Mrs. Creasy who disappears without a trace.

As the girls go door to door in search of clues (and God), the neighborhood starts to give up its secrets. "In a masterfully constructed plot, Grace—who sniffs out the lies told by her adult neighbors—learns a lesson about loyalty and true friendship, as secrets born of shame are gradually revealed. This understated, somewhat quirky debut novel is remarkable for its structure, characterizations, pitch-perfect prose, touches of humor, and humanity. Cannon, a psychiatrist, is an author to watch." -Booklist

Will appeal to fans of the Flavia de Luce series by Alan C. Bradley.

The House Between Tides by Sarah Maine, is an atmospheric psychological mystery set on Muirlan Island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, where Londoner Hetty Deveraux hopes to turn Muirlan House, inherited from a distant relative, into a luxury inn. The shocking discovery of the century-old remains of a murder victim plunges her into an investigation of Theo Blake, the acclaimed painter and his troubled marriage to Beatrice who vanished from the island in 1910.

"Maine skillfully balances a Daphne du Maurier atmosphere with a Barbara Vine–like psychological mystery as she guides the reader back and forth on these storylines... The setting emerges as the strongest personality in this compelling story, evoking passion in the characters as fierce as the storms which always lurk on the horizon." -Kirkus Reviews

I Let You Go * * by Clare Mackintosh, "a twisty, psychological thriller with an astonishing intensity” ~ (U.K) Daily Mail opens with the hit-and-run death of 5 year-old Jacob on a rainy afternoon in Bristol. Shortly afterward, Jacob's mother disappears.

Wrecked with guilt, sculptor Jenna Gray relocates to the isolated Welsh village of Penfach. Back in Bristol, Det. Insp. Ray Stevens and detective constable, Kate Evans are frustrated with the lack of results in their investigations but push on despite official orders. Their persistent efforts eventually pay off.

"Mackintosh, a former police detective and journalist, weaves a complex tale out of seemingly straightforward circumstances." -Publishers Weekly.

"But her real skill is in the way she incorporates jaw-dropping, yet plausible, plot twists into the already complex story-line." -Kirkus Reviews.

A new author to watch for fans of Tana French, Paula Hawkins, S.J. Watson and A.S.A. Harrison. I particularly enjoyed the audio format, beautifully read by Nicola Barber and Steven Crossley.

* = starred review
* * = 2 starred reviews