Review: Encore does ‘loverly’ Lady with minimalist charm


Jessica Grové is abso-bloomin’-lutely loverly in Encore's <em>My Fair Lady</em>.

Jessica Grové is abso-bloomin’-lutely loverly in Encore's My Fair Lady. / Photo by Michele Anliker Photography

It’s loverly what a fine cast and a clever director and designer can do.

The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter has taken on one of the most challenging and most beloved musical romances and redesigned it for the theater’s intimate confines.

My Fair Lady is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its Broadway debut this year. To mark the occasion Encore has enlisted the talents of noted theatrical director and set designer Tony Walton, who in 1956 was married to the musical’s original Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews.

Walton has taken a minimalist approach to a work that has always inspired a certain extravagance. But neither the Encore stage nor budget could accommodate that richness. Walton has been inspired by line drawings for a published script of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, upon which My Fair Lady is based. The drawings by Feliks Topolsky and the original Broadway sets by Oliver Smith were inspiration for rear screen projections that neatly, and compactly, capture the look and feel of the various London locations. The costumes still have a stylized Edwardian charm. The low- and high- class areas are not as starkly defined but are still clearly suggested.

A chamber orchestra visible in the rear stage, a smaller ensemble, and the elimination of the grand ball scene allow Walton and his talented cast to focus on what matter’s most, Shaw’s great characters and wit and Lerner and Loewe’s beautiful music, one of the finest collection of memorable songs in the history of musical theater.

The story is well known. An arrogant upper-class linguist accepts a bet from a fellow language expert to transform a howling lower class flower girl into a “proper lady” by teaching her how to speak like the proper people do. For Shaw this was a play about class differences and the snobbery of those on top. But Alan Jay Lerner’s book transformed it into the unlikely near romance of a beautiful young woman and a grumpy middle-aged confirmed bachelor. Lerner and Frederick Loewe created songs of poignant yearning for position and love and comic songs that capture the spirit of the “undeserving poor.” And it works every time.

The lead performers come with Broadway, film, and television credits that add a bit of glamour, but it’s their talents that really count.

Jessica Grové is an enchanting Eliza, feisty, determined and yet also a bit vulnerable. Grové has a rich, commanding voice that always hits the sweet spot on the show stopping “I Could Have Danced All Night,” but also finds the wistfulness of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” the fierce determination of “Just You Wait,” and the giddy joy of “The Rain In Spain.” The musicals ambiguous ending has always seemed a bit forced, but the sweet, resigned look on Grové’s face makes it a bit more believable.

The object of Eliza’s scorn and growing affection is of course the irascible Henry Higgins, or to the flower girl 'enry 'iggins, a man with a talented ear for accents and no sense at all for the feelings of others, until he’s transformed by his creation. Veteran British actor David Gerroll looks as if he were born to play Higgins. He’s lean, angular with a hawkish, weathered Sherlock Holmes face. He sings in the traditional Rex Harrison speak sing. He bites off Higgins' disdainful opinions of the world with relish and he really comes into his own in his final desperate attempts to keep Eliza without losing himself.

Eliza’s wastrel father with his original ideas on morality, Alfred P. Doolittle, is one of the great comic characters. Keith Allen Kalinowski gives a roaring, rollicking, joyful performance as this always drunk con man. He has two standout musical numbers on “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me To the Church on Time” and finds every nuance of humor and bits of naughtiness that the songs embody. He is supported by a lively, if confined, ensemble, and particularly by his two rubber faced mates Harry and Jamie, Dan Morrison and Jeff Steinhauer.

The small but important role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill is given a stunning performance by Riley McFarland. Not only does he have a beautiful, piercing tenor voice on “On the Street Where You Live,” but he has a bright, engagingly goofy personality that captures the sweet pain of Freddy’s unrequited love for Eliza.

Dale Dobson is a square jawed rock of propriety as Col. Pickering, the decent contrast to Higgins’ boorishness. Connie Cowper is nicely tart as Higgins' long suffering mother who comforts Eliza.

The musical director Tyler Driskill also finds a way to make a big show work in a small venue. The chamber orchestra does a fine job, and can be particularly expressive in the quieter moments. Sometimes the orchestra is a bit too loud over Higgins’ spoken songs but more often it can’t capture the sweep of a large orchestra on Loewe’s lushly romantic songs. But Driskill and his tiny crew have found a way to provide what’s needed and give full support for the fine singing of the ensemble and the solo performers.

This is solid musical theater, which is what is always expected at Encore. But for the company and for the multi-award winning Walton it has also been an interesting experiment in how to pare down a big, big show and bring out all the intimacy at its core. Walton and Encore have met the challenge.

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.

My Fair Lady runs through August 28. For ticket information, call the Encore Theatre Box Office at (734) 268-6200 or visit the website at

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #606: Capitol Crimes


Fabulous Fiction Firsts #606: Capitol Crimes

The Second Girl** by former D.C. police detective David Swinson is "an auspicious, and gleefully amoral, series debut" (Kirkus Reviews), featuring retired DC cop Frank Marr - damaged, damned, and an unrepentant drug addict who works sporadically as a private investigator for defense attorney (and occasional bed-mate) Leslie Costello.

When Frank breaks into a drug den to replenish his personal stash, he discovers a teenage girl doped up and chained to the bathroom. Rather than calling the authority and trying to explain his involvement, he hands her off to Leslie, but not before he manages to draw out all the details of her kidnapping. As the news of Amanda Meyer's return to her family, another suburban family with a missing girl hires him to find her, and Frank is not above administering his own brand of justice to get the job done.

"Swinson delivers an excellent addition to the noir genre as he unveils layer after layer of his gritty protagonist. Readers of Dennis Lehane and Richard Price as well as fans of The Wire will appreciate the bleak description of inner-city Washington, DC." (Library Journal)

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #606: Capitol Crimes

The Dead Don't Bleed* by David Krugler is a mystery/police procedural/spy thriller set in Washington, D.C at the waning days of WWII.

With victory in sight, the suspicion of communist spies in the capitol is palpable, spies who seem to stop at nothing to get their hands on the atomic bomb project. When Naval Intelligence officer Logan Skerrill is found dead in a back alley of the Navy Yard, Lt. Ellis Voigt is called in to investigate.

With clues of the murder pointing to Skerrill's connection to a news-clipping service suspected of Communist affiliations, Voigt goes undercover. Pursuing crosses and double-crosses, he discovers a defecting German physicist, a top secret lab in Los Alamos, and Uranium-235 which suggest something far larger than the usual spy v. spy shenanigans.

"Voigt is an engaging character.... (history professor) Krugler’s portrait of wartime Washington, particularly the rivalries within ONI and the enmity between the FBI and ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence), is thoroughly absorbing." (Booklist)

For fans of David Downing and Philip Kerr.

** = 2 starred reviews
* = starred review

Review: Michigan Shakespeare Festival's Richard II



The center holds in MSF's Richard II.

Sometimes, when you see a Shakespeare play that’s rarely produced, you walk out thinking, “I’m pretty sure I know why.” But then, at other times, like an unexpected gift, you walk out of a production thinking, “Where have you been all my life?”

The latter describes my experience with Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s three-hour production of Richard II, now playing at Canton’s Village Theater.

The history play focuses on King Richard (Robert Kauzlaric), who’d been crowned at age 9, after his grandfather Edward III ruled England for 50 years, and his father, the natural heir, died.

Richard II takes place when Richard has reached adulthood, after wrangling with his father’s brothers for years to retain power. When one of Richard’s cousins, Henry Bolingbroke (Robert McLean), gets into a feud with a noble named Thomas Mowbray (Matt Daniels), who’s accused of being involved in the murder of one of Richard’s uncles, Richard banishes them both, thereby angering Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Alan Ball). The rift sets events in motion, as Gaunt confronts Richard and later dies; Richard leaves England to reclaim power in Ireland; and Bolingbroke returns to England to not just claim his father’s title and land, but also Richard’s crown.

Many factors play into our response to a show, of course: design elements, the language, performers, pacing, the director’s choices, prominent themes, and even what personal experiences we’re bringing with us into the theater.

For me, this seldom-produced history play opened up near its end, when Richard has been usurped and imprisoned and says: “Alack the heavy day/ That I have worn so many winters out/ And know not now what name to call myself./ … But whate’er I be/ Nor I nor any man that but man is/ With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased/ with being nothing.” In this monologue, Shakespeare reflects not only on the experience of a person’s previously firm sense of identity in freefall, but also our shifting sense of our place in the world as we age – which is to say, the inevitable realization that each of us might not, after all, be super-special snowflakes.

So there’s already some grade A meat to chew on in Richard II, but director Janice L. Blixt’s vision for the show also injects some fun touches. Re-imagined as a contemporary power struggle, MSF’s Richard II features actors in suits and ties and sweater vests (designed by costumer Suzanne Young) instead of the more traditional doublet/hose combo. With this in mind, Richard’s sycophantic, hipster friends, when not laughing at others or rolling their eyes, play a subtle drinking game early in the show, stealing nips from their pocketed flasks each time someone says the king’s name. This led me to viewing the trio of Bushy, Bagot, and Green (Eric Eilersen, Ian Geers, Michael Phillip Thomas) as “the bro courtiers.”

But the center would not hold if not for the truly outstanding work of Kauzlaric, who makes Richard someone we feel probably should be knocked down a peg or two, but perhaps not knocked off the peg board altogether. For Richard is smug and self-assured as king, not to mention compassion-challenged (upon learning of his uncle’s death, he flippantly says, “So much for that”); but these flaws somehow make Richard’s imminent fall all the more searing. When Kauzlaric grips tightly onto the crown, just as Richard’s scheduled to hand it over to Bolingbroke, he delivers a blistering speech, disillusioned by how quickly and easily his life has been dismantled; and in the show’s powerful penultimate scene, when he’s been abandoned by all and left alone in his cell, Kauzlaric presents us with a man earnestly struggling to process grief.

Jeromy Hopgood designed the show’s set, which consists of a seemingly collapsed, slanted gateway (actors often duck while making entrances through it), and a backdrop of church windows hanging at different levels. Visually, the stage picture suggests a wobbly, failing infrastructure, which dovetails well with a play about a young ruler who enjoys the confidence of neither his family nor his subjects. Things really are falling apart.

David Blixt expertly choreographs the production’s sword-fights (and assorted violent acts); David Allen Stoughton designed the lighting, which creates a world outside the brightly lit king’s court that feels ominous and isolating – an effect achieved in concert with Kate Hopgood’s sound design and music composition. And Betty Thomas designed the show’s props.

Of course, Shakespeare’s lesser known history plays often frustrate contemporary audiences; it can feel as though you’re jumping into the middle of an epic novel, and try as you might, there are just too many people, and too much you’ve missed, to make sense of the whole.

But you can trust that you’re in good hands with director Janice Blixt, who has, to name one example, added a brief prologue to Richard II – from an entirely different play – to dramatize the murder that’s at the heart of Bolingbroke and Mowbry’s argument in the true opening scene. (This also, conveniently, sets us up for the shady betrayals and violence to come.) Blixt’s commitment to finding creative ways to fill the gaps in our knowledge on stage, so that we’re better able to plug in and focus on the story being told, demonstrates MSF’s mission writ large: to encourage modern audiences to re-connect with Shakespeare’s work in new, invigorating ways.

Held to this standard, Richard II passes with flying colors.

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.

Richard II continues through Sunday, August 14 at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton, MI. For tickets, visit

Sing, Sing a Song: Ann Arbor's Community Sing


Sing, Sing a Song: Ann Arbor's Community Sing

U of M's Men's Glee Club demonstrates the value of community singing outside of Hill Auditorium, January 1959. Image from Old News.

There are songs that move your soul, songs that make you want to dance, songs that fill your heart. But what about singing? Can singing—especially in a group—really make a difference in your life?

The answer to that question is a harmonious “yes!” Numerous studies indicate that singing changes our brains, both calming and energizing us. A 2013 article in Time Magazine described group singing as the “perfect tranquilizer, (one) that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the many community sings that have cropped up around our state, including one right here in Ann Arbor. Since last November, people of all different vocal abilities have been gathering at the Ann Arbor Senior Center in Burns Park on the first Sunday of the month at 7 pm to belt out tunes ranging from Woody Guthrie to Bill Withers.

As someone who was kicked out of my high school choir class, I was a bit reluctant to attend. The ad said that it welcomed anyone—whether you sang in a choir or in your shower. Since I most definitely do the latter (with a rousing selection of Barry Manilow songs), I decided to give it a try; I was put at ease almost immediately.

“How many of you were told to just mouth the words?” song leader Matt Watroba asked at the beginning of class. Since I technically was told that it was better to just mouth the words as my choir teacher was signing the slip to move me to a drama class, I raised my hand. Watroba then said the words that I didn’t know I needed to hear, “That’s nonsense. Anyone can sing.”

And Watroba knows a thing or two about singing. A singer, teacher, founding member of the National Folk Alliance, writer, former host of WDET’s Folks Like Us, frequent performer at The Ark—Watroba has contributed to the musical landscape of our country in ways that most of us can only dream of. Recently, he has focused his energies on community sings.

Inspired by the words of Pete Seeger, who said he always intended to put songs on people’s lips, Watroba set out to create and host these magical gatherings. The idea is simple—gather together, share songs, and sing. Even if you have been told you should transfer out of choir class immediately and go back to drama class. Singing is the “perfect excuse” to get offline and get back in touch with the healing brought about by being in a community.

Even after a few songs, I feel better. Research studies confirm this, finding that singing contributes to the quality of lives and lowers stress. It is considered an aerobic activity in that improves circulation by increasing oxygen in the blood. Singing also requires deep breathing, which is a key to most relaxation techniques. And honestly, it is hard to worry about your job when you are concentrating on the lyrics to some of the most beautiful songs ever written.
But why does singing, especially with others, affect us this way? Some researchers believe it may come from the endorphins and oxytocin that are released when we sing. The former hormone is related to feelings of pleasure; the latter enhances feelings of trust and bonding. Another study posited that singing is our “evolutionary reward” for working together cooperatively, rather than trying to fix something on our own.

The benefits of being in a group are also innumerable—the sense of belonging and acceptance, the absence of loneliness, the act of being welcomed. The Community Sing groups are especially welcoming, in that you don’t have to audition, and you don’t even have to be able to carry a tune.

So whether you are a trained opera singer, someone who rocks out to 80s hair bands in your car, or yes, even someone who has been asked to lip-sync in a choir, join us for our next Community Sing on August 7 at 7 pm at the Ann Arbor Senior Center. You will never be asked to just mouth the words!

Patti Smith is a special education teacher who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cats. She is the author of two books about Ann Arbor, the most recent is a history of the People’s Food Co-op. She wishes she had even an ounce of musical talent so that she could join the Civic Band! Visit her at or @TeacherPatti on Twitter.

The Community Sing takes place Sunday, August 7 at 7 pm at the Ann Arbor Senior Center at 1320 Baldwin Ave. There is a $5 participation fee.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #605


Fabulous Fiction Firsts #605

A best-seller in Europe, the first foreign-language romance novel to be translated and published in the U.S, All In* by Swedish author Simona Ahrnstedt is "sexy, smart, and completely unputdownable." (Tessa Dare)

David Hammer, the upstart, infamous venture capitalist and corporate raider, known for his brutal take-overs is poised to pull off the biggest deal in the history of Swedish finance, make it world-wide finance. His sight is set on Investum - one of Sweden's biggest and oldest financial institutions, owned and controlled by the De la Grip Family. After years of planning, all the players are in place; he needs just one member of the owning family on his side—Natalia De la Grip. He invites her to lunch.

(Countess) Natalia is everything David despises - upper-class, traditional, as close to royalty as you could get without actually being royal and yet he finds her brilliant, driven to succeed in a man’s world, and enchanting. Natalia is intrigued by this way-too handsome man who is rich, dangerous, and in the business circles - utterly unethical. However, the powerful chemistry between them leaves both of them exhilarated and vulnerable.

As the deal goes through, it turns out that it is not all about business. Past history, family secrets and revenge will force David and Natalia to confront their innermost fears and desires as they make deeply difficult choices.

“The author’s ability to skillfully fuse a luxurious lifestyle, a refreshingly different Swedish setting, a plot riddled with revenge and financial intrigue, and plenty of steamy romance means All In will be the must-have leisure read everywhere this summer.” (Booklist).

For fans of the glitz-and-glam novels of Judith Krantz, Beatriz Williams, and perhaps Sylvia Day.

* = starred review

Review: Michigan Shakespeare Festival's The Killer Angels



Tobin Hissong in The Killer Angels.

One thing you’ll inevitably think about while watching the Michigan stage premiere production of Karen Tarjan’s The Killer Angels – presented by Michigan Shakespeare Festival, and inspired by the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel of the same name by Michael Shaara – is how 19th century American warfare and military strategy look nothing like our contemporary conflicts; yet even so, brutality, death, and nightmarish confusion on the battlefield remain constants.

Focused on the three-day Battle of Gettysburg – cited by many as a key turning point for the victorious (uh, spoiler alert?) Union Army – Killer Angels introduces us to military leaders as well as infantrymen on both sides of the war.

How? By double- and triple-casting the production’s 12 actors. And while this casting instruction/suggestion is wholly practical, it nonetheless makes following the play’s already-complicated narrative that much harder. Indeed, if your knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg is minimal - ahem - you’ll likely be struggling to keep the characters (and other details) straight.

But there’s also a larger storytelling paradox at work: a military battle must, by definition, involve lots of people; and yet, to establish an emotional connection to the story, the audience must have sustained, intimate access to a smaller group of characters. (This is how we follow Shakespeare’s history plays, which tend to focus less on a single battle and more on those vying for power.) Because so many leaders and soldiers played a key role – some for better, some for worse – in the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels shifts focus often, providing only cursory glimpses of most characters.

Yes, some conversations among the men are highly personal and touching; but the moments are fleeting, making the show feel more like a well-crafted, visually sumptuous 3D history lesson – with occasional musical interludes.

Indeed, the cast’s spare, haunting, men's chorus harmonies on songs like the show’s opener, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – marvelously led by Killer Angels’ Troubadour Ian Geers – were among my favorite moments of the show. Music director Kate Hopgood, who researched and arranged the show’s music, in addition to being the show's sound designer, affectingly gives the show some soulful scaffolding (and thus gives patrons a few goosebumps).

Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design is simple and theatrical, so that despite the play’s many locales, the only constants are a wood platform at stage right that stands in for General Lee’s (Tobin Hissong) headquarters, and a draped sheet of white fabric for projections (designed by Christine Franzen) that hangs upstage left. To establish other settings, crates get moved and stacked, so soldiers may appear to be sitting in a tree, or taking cover behind the terrain’s natural features.

Costume designer Patty Branam expertly dresses the actors in historically accurate uniforms, using a pants-and-white-shirt base that allows for several quick costume changes; and the attention paid to details like the worn, weathered look of Lee’s hat, and the way the number of buttons on a uniform indicates one's military rank, really seals the deal. Betty Thomas designed the show’s era-appropriate props, and David Allen Stoughton’s lighting design looks gauzy and occasionally spooky under cover of fog, giving Killer Angels the feel of a lived ghost story.

David Blixt does fantastic work choreographing the show’s battles, but the most arresting moment comes at the show’s climax, when an elegant and devastating bit of stagecraft conveys how Lee’s advancing Confederate troops are gutted in the final showdown.

Scenes like this, as well as the more personal, philosophical conversations that happen between men at Gettysburg, get to the heart of The Killer Angels, and director Janice L. Blixt seizes on the show’s best moments with a sure hand. And although the ensemble was strong generally, some standouts included Geers, who guides the audience through the complex story while slipping into multiple roles; Dwight Tolar as Union Col. Chamberlain, a thoughtful, dignified former schoolteacher-turned-soldier who has to make terrifying choices on the battlefield (like charging when his men run out of ammunition); Robert McLean as frustrated Confederate Lt. General Longstreet, who carries out Lee’s orders even when he knows the mission is doomed; and Hissong, who makes Lee a well-intentioned leader who’s so set on ending the war that his judgment about how to best achieve that is compromised.

Civil War buffs will likely swoon at The Killer Angels, as will fans of Shaara’s book (or the film adaptation, Gettysburg); and MSF’s overall execution is impressive and solid. But history dilettantes looking to get lost in a gripping story may instead just feel generally lost.

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 Killer Angels continues through Sunday, August 14 at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton, MI. For tickets, visit

Preview: The Importance of Being Earnest, Brass Tacks Ensemble



Actors acting earnestly "Earnest".

You love the intimacy of Kerrytown Concert House as a music venue. You enjoy KCH jazz, classical, cabaret, and other concerts. But did you know that this historic Ann Arbor performance space offers live theater?

The Brass Tacks Ensemble has faithfully used the Concert House as a summer venue for their outstanding mix of classical plays and original theatre since 2004 (with their staging of Shakespeare Variations, an original production of sketches based on Shakespearian tragedies). Formed when local actor and writer James Ingagiola gathered with other theatre lovers to produce King Lear at the Performance Network in 1999, Brass Tacks has consistently offered intimate and involving theatrical experiences to the Ann Arbor community.

The simplicity of the Concert House works well for the Ensemble: a guiding Brass Tacks principle is to concentrate on a play’s core elements –plot, theme, characterization - stripping away any excess and focusing on the theatrical essentials. This simple and direct approach also frees the audience’s imagination.

The Ensemble returns to Kerrytown this week, staging one of the wittiest, funniest plays in the English language: Oscar Wilde’s classic The Importance of Being Earnest. This tale of gentleman John Worthing, his love for the lady Gwendolen Fairfax, and her steadfast determination to only marry a man named Ernest combines sparkling wit, social satire, and farcical situations in one glorious package.

Directed by Ingagiola (the Ensemble’s Artistic Director), this production features local actors Amanda Barnett, Ethan Gibney, Elizaveta McFall, Amanda Photenhauer, Jan Romans, Annaliese Romans, Elizabeth Wagner, and Catherine Zudak.

If you are wondering about this largely female cast for a show that historically features five men, Ingagiola will tell you that "The sex of the characters has not changed. A lot of talented actresses are frequently left out of productions because of a dearth of female roles. They haven't been left out now."

Enjoy an evening of delightfully intimate theatre with one of the area’s most established and innovative theatrical troupes in one of Ann Arbor’s most beloved performance venues.

Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs Thursday - Saturday, August 4 -6, at Kerrytown Concert House, 415 North Fourth Avenue in Ann Arbor. Shows are at 8pm with an additional 2:00 pm matinee on Saturday August 6. For reservations and ticket information, call the Kerrytown Concert House at 734-769-2999 or visit

Review: "Real American" at the Ann Arbor Art Center



Shawn Quinlan (Pittsburgh, PA), "The New American Heritage" (quilt/fiber)

The Ann Arbor Art Center’s latest 117 Gallery offering asks a tantalizing, if not also impossible question to satisfactorily answer: Who—and what—is a real American?

Indeed, more precisely: What physical, cultural, theological, and/or social features does a real American have? Do these perimeters have any boundaries that pertain to being a “real” American? And what are the political consequences—if there are any such consequences—attached to this definition?

After all, the presumption is (and it’s certainly been repeated enough during this present election cycle) that there is such a thing as a “real” American. And it’s a seemingly strong potion upon which to mount a political campaign.

But is there such a thing as a real American? This display of superlative art intends to find out—for better or worse.

As juror and Ann Arbor-based photojournalist Peter Baker tells us of his rationale for the exhibit, “Real American” seeks to “explore the generational, ethnographic, cultural, and anthropological ideals of what the word ‘American’ means. From fresh apple pie to Budweiser, the Star Spangled Banner to Party in the USA, what is the modern American experience?

“Are we entering the sci-fi World of Tomorrow, longing for the Norman Rockwell past, or painting ourselves into an Idiocracy? If our culture is our biggest export, what kind of image are we presenting to the world?

“This exhibition,” concludes Baker “seeks artworks that span the spectrum from whimsical to austere, nostalgic to provocative. Artworks may consist of images from popular and visual culture, contain everyday objects assembled in unexpected ways, or incorporate stars and stripes.”

Correctly said—and perhaps the best thing about Baker’s selections in this show is the extraordinary range of what a real American can be. After all, even if the common understanding is also obviously a caricature, Americans cannot by definition or description be said to be analogous to what a Frenchman or Irishman or Nigerian supposedly looks like—or supposedly is. The beauty of the term is that a real American can look like all stereotypes.

Local, regional, and national artists selected for inclusion by Baker are Jim Aho, Mark Bleshenski, Tina Blondell, CJ Breil, Sarah Buddendeck, Seder Burns, Barbara Melnik Carson, Vanessa Compton, Errol Daniels, Keith Downie, Dan Farnum, Kathie Foley-Meyer, Heather Freeman, Jonathan Frey, David Gardner, Sarah Hahn, Amber Harrison, Christian Helser, Timothy Householder, Melissa Lynn, Astrid Muller-Karger, Dietmar Krumrey, C.B. Murphy, John Posa, Shawn Quinlan, Jim Rehlin, Jaye Schlesinger, Geoffrey Stein, Marilynn Thomas, Seth Trent, Tamara Wasserman, Chad Yenney, and Micah Zavacky.

Baker’s Best of Show selection in the exhibition is Pittsburgh, PA resident Shawn Quinlan’s quilt and fiber “The New American Heritage.” Second Place is Tulsa, OK photographer Dan Farnum’s archival inkjet color photograph “Monster Energy, Tulsa.” Third Place is Ann Arbor John Posa’s untitled acrylic on canvas mixed-media deer hide and scrap metal Donald Trump portrait. And Honorable Mentions have been handed to Minneapolis, MN’s Tina Blondell for her oil on canvas “Antimony as Nubia” and Denver, CO’s Melissa Lynn for her “Mitchelen BigMan—Crow Indian/Iraq Veteran” chromogenic color photograph print.

As stated above—and is the case with most group exhibits—there’s no particular rhyme nor reason to the artwork in “Real American” outside of taking general aim at the topic. And interestingly enough, this speaks of both the pluralism of our society as it does these artists’ decidedly independent frame of mind. The exhibit proves it’s a good American place to be.

For example, Shawn Quinlan’s Best of Show quilt and fiber “The New American Heritage” is an emphatic satirical take on what is real about being a “Real American” as the quilt takes scatological aim at the U.S.A. through its lampooning of our society’s strengths and weaknesses. Uncle Sam is depicted as a red, white, and blue clown with straw hat atop and arms propped with disembodied six-shooters at waist-height standing in front of a cloud of newspaper smoke and fire. Add an exceptionally buff George Washington as well as a vaguely surreal exquisite corpse Abraham Lincoln charbroiling a steak and Quinlan’s “The New American Heritage” is a rather pungent view of what it means to be a “Real American.”

“The New American Heritage” is one of many artworks in this exhibit that have an overt political or social bent—this is the kind of display that brings out the best of this kind of parody. Yet license of free thought is only one aspect of what it means to be an American. On the other hand, Baker’s Second Place archival inkjet “Monster Energy, Tulsa” by Dan Farnum touches far more subtly and thoughtfully at class and economics in its artless depiction of an everyday group of archetypical American youths standing casually in front of suburban strip mall.

But so much for politics: The exhibit is also exceedingly lyrical, and my favorite work on display is Allen Park, MI Seder Burns’ magnificent archival inkjet “RV Camped for the Night on BLM Land in Colorado” color photograph that describes an “unexpected, quirky, and complex” view of what it means to be a real American.

This lone camper vehicle, taking advantage of federal regulation that allows for extended free camping (albeit in a band of states running vertically from Montana to New Mexico; horizontally west to the Pacific Ocean) is shown after dusk set against a magnificent American countryside with stars and stripes strategically draped across the front windshield.

Burns’ photograph clearly partakes of what it means to be a “real” American as there’s a free-spiritedness that’s been part of our national wanderlust reaching back for centuries from the days of Native American habitation up and down North America to varied European-based explorations through the Manifest Destiny that’s subsequently championed continental expansion. His “RV Camped for the Night” merely gives this notion a well-deserved 21st century spin.

Shawn Quinlan, Dan Farnum, and Seder Burns ultimately span the range of what Baker heartily illustrates in this exhibit. Yet there are, of course, many more views. What’s implicitly inferred in each work in this display is the belief that what it means to be a “real” American is really no more than a psychological state of mind—and everything else proceeds from there.

John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.

“Real American” will continue through August 13 at the Ann Arbor Art Center 117 Gallery, 117 W. Liberty St. Exhibit hours are 10 am to 7 pm, Monday-Friday; 10 am to 6 pm, Saturday; and noon to 5 pm, Sunday. For information, call (734) 994-8004.

Ann Arbor Art Fair 2016: Photo Gallery

Ann Arbor Art Fair 2016 - Liberty Street

Ann Arbor Art Fair 2016 - Liberty Street / Photo by Tom Smith (CC-by-NC)

Battening down the hatches.

Battening down the hatches. / Photo by Tom Smith (CC-by-NC)

Roos Roast Coffee at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. Deep Local.

Roos Roast Coffee at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. Deep Local. / Photo by Tom Smith (CC-by-NC)

Violin Monster Go.

Violin Monster Go. / Photo by Tom Smith (CC-by-NC)

Ann Arbor Police at the Art Fair.

Ann Arbor Police at the Art Fair. / Photo by Tom Smith (CC-by-NC)

NOLAtron busks for energon.

NOLAtron busks for energon. / Photo by Tom Smith (CC-by-NC)

All photos by AADL Library Technician Tom Smith.

The Ann Arbor Art Fair is an annual event. The 2016 Art Fair was Thursday, July 21 through Sunday, July 24, 2016. Check their website for information and announcements for next year's festivities.

Preview: Marcia Ball at the Ark


Havin' a Boogie Woogie Ball

Havin' a Boogie Woogie Ball.

Marcia Ball, described as the “one of a kind queen of swamp blues piano,” will swing through Ann Arbor this coming Sunday, July 31 to perform what’s sure to be a rollicking show at The Ark.

Ball grew up in Louisiana in a musical family—all the women in her family including her mother and grandmother were avid piano players—and has been playing piano herself since elementary school. She played in various bands throughout the 1960s and 1970s and set out on her solo career in 1974. Heavily influenced by her Louisiana roots, Ball’s unique piano style includes elements of zydeco and boogie woogie, as well as good old southern blues.

Ball has released almost twenty records since 1972, most recently The Tattooed Lady & The Alligator Man in 2014 and has won nine Blues Music Awards. During her long career, Ball has amassed a following of devoted fans as she travels about playing venues around the country similar in size to The Ark. Ball lives in Austin, Texas now, a home she came to inadvertently in 1970. While embarking on a planned move to San Francisco, her car broke down in Austin and she enjoyed the place so much that she decided to stay.

One of the things that fans enjoy most about Ball is the vivid storytelling that punctuates her music. The song "The Tattooed Lady & The Alligator Man" is the story of finding love at a traveling carnival that’s outrageous and fun but hits home with insightful truths and witty turns of phrase. Although her shows are full of energy, Ball delivers slower, sometimes heart-wrenching tunes too, such as “Let the Tears Roll Down,” off her album Presumed Innocent which includes the lyrics “Let the tears roll down/Let my poor heart break/But you won’t hear a sound/As you walk away.” Her husky voice does particularly well expressing the pain in such songs.

Concert attendees afraid of being driven too far down a melancholy hole shouldn’t be deterred, though: she counters sorrowful ballads with songs like “Peace, Love & BBQ,” which is a song simply about hanging in the backyard grilling meat and “Let Me Play With Your Poodle,” a raunchy song with barely veiled innuendos. Fans can hope for a variety of songs this Sunday at the show; with her most recent album a few years back, Ball has been playing a mix of old and new on tour of late.

Even if your typical musical preferences don’t encompass Ball’s unusual mixture of Louisiana sound, it’s undeniable that Sunday’s show is an amazing chance to hear a truly unique brand of piano playing, performed with true Americana spirit. All hail the queen of swamp blues piano!

Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library. She loves blues piano, as well as hanging in the backyard grilling meat.

Marcia Ball will perform at The Ark at 7:30 pm Sunday, July 31. Tickets are $30 and doors are at 7:00pm.