U-M Gilbert and Sullivan Society celebrates its 75th anniversary with pirates, policemen, and paleontologists

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

UMGASS's 2022 production of The Pirates of Penzance

Left to right: Craig Rettew as The Pirate King and Matthew Grace as Major-General Stanley in costumes for UMGASS's 2022 production of The Pirates of Penzance. Photo courtesy of UMGASS.

With cat-like tread, a rollicking band of pirates will step upon the stage from December 8-11 as they have done about every four years since 1949 when the two-year-old University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society (UMGASS) gave its first performance of The Pirates of Penzance.

Sparkling tunes and lyrics replete with irony, wit, conflict, and romance make it no surprise that UMGASS would celebrate its 75th anniversary with a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s two-act comic operetta. Director David Andrews says, “It’s probably the best known and best loved of Gilbert and Sullivan’s pieces.” Andrews says the show doesn’t just have catchy melodies that people hum on the way out: “Some people are humming on the way in,” he says of the well-known show.  

U-M's production of the musical tragedy "Bernarda Alba" mixes period costumes and an abstract set to confront contemporary issues facing women

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UMich's production of Bernarda Alba

Scenic designer Jungah Han created an inventive set for U-M's production of Bernarda Alba, which had a drab look when it opened in New York City in 2006. Photo courtesy of Linda Goodrich.

Fredrico Garcia Lorca wrote The House of Bernarda Alba in 1936, shortly before he was murdered by a nationalist firing squad during the Spanish Civil War. Michael John LaChiusa shortened the title to Bernarda Alba when he set the play to music and added lyrics; he made some changes to the play while keeping the essential story: 

Bernarda Alba assumes the role of family head after her husband’s funeral. She orders her five unmarried daughters, ages 20-39, to mourn for eight years, as her mother did before her. It will be as though the house is bricked up; even crying is forbidden. One problem is that three of the sisters are enamored with the handsome Pepe el Romano—the eldest is engaged to him—and jealousy takes center stage. But what exactly can the sisters do under the circumstances? Turns out, some life-altering things.

When the musical tragedy opened at Lincoln Center in New York in 2006, the scenic design was drab, a realistic depiction of this closed and lonely home. 

For Linda Goodrich's production of LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba adaptation that's running November 10-13 at the University of Michigan, scenic designer Jungah Han dropped the drab for what Goodrich calls a “wildly inventive” set. The stark red floor is bordered by a black playing area, with a kind of ceiling that descends to oppress the characters. Actors step out of character and onto the rim at times to witness the action or to narrate. 

"North Country" Fare: The 40th-anniversary edition of Jay Stielstra's folk opera sails into The Ark

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Rochelle Clark and Brad Phillips as the young couple Sari and Michael talk things over in front of David Menefee, who plays Old Man, as they rehearse for the 40th-anniversary production of Jay Stielstra's North Country Opera.

Rochelle Clark and Brad Phillips as the young couple Sari and Michael talk things over in front of David Menefee, who plays Old Man, during rehearsals for the 40th-anniversary production of Jay Stielstra's North Country Opera. Photo courtesy of North Country Opera.

Forty years ago, Jay Stielstra was playing his songs to enthusiastic listeners around Ann Arbor, mostly at Mr. Flood’s Party, a bar that once stood on 120 West Liberty. Bouyed by the response to his tunes, the folk singer decided to write some continuity and put them together in a play, North Country Opera

“The main thing that carries it are the songs,” Stielstra says. “I asked other musicians I knew in Ann Arbor if they wanted to be in a play, and they all said yes.”

Stielstra knew one of the founders of the Performance Network, the late David Bernstein, and brought the work to him. “David was very enthusiastic,” Stielstra says, and North Country Opera premiered in 1982 as the fledgling theater's second production.

The play was revived in 1992, 1993, and 2003 in Ann Arbor, and in 2022 it toured Northern Michigan, with the 89-year-old playwright along for the ride. North Country Opera returns to Ann Arbor for one night, October 18, at The Ark

Emilio Rodriguez asks who gets to decide what’s offensive in his play "God Kinda Looks Like Tupac"

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A photo of Emilio Rodriguez, author of the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac.

Emilio Rodriguez, author of the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac. Photo via his Facebook page.

NOTE: "God Kinda Looks Like Tupac" has been pushed back from its original opening date to August 5 due to illness.

Emilio Rodriguez, whose play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac opens at Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova on July 29 August 5, says his theater career started early.

Very early.

Donning his mother’s high heels and appropriating her broom and a funnel, he performed “one-kid adaptations of The Wizard of Oz” in the family’s living room.

Perhaps one reason why a movie with the famous line "There's no place like home" resonated with Rodriguez is that he is a self-described “military brat” who grew up on the move. Rodriguez says he didn’t have a sense of hometown until he moved to Detroit in 2012 to teach high school English and drama for AmeriCorps. One thing that informs all his work, he says, is “a loose sense of the idea of home. The plays are not necessarily set in someone’s home [but ask] … how do people make a sense of home?”

When Rodriguez began teaching, he saw the classroom as “an extension of home. … In the younger grade levels, kids spend more time at school than with their families.” He also found that friendships with colleagues gave him a sense of connection, of a mock family, a home. 

Rodriguez set God Kinda Looks Like Tupac in a Detroit high school, where a white art teacher in the mostly Black school has been targeted as insensitive. A Latino teacher offers a suggestion to the art teacher that might help him keep his job: It’s Black History month, she tells him, and there’s a competition; if a student he enters can paint something in celebration of the month and win, chances are good he will be named Teacher of the Year.

And who would fire Teacher of the Year? 

Homeless kids find a voice in U-M's production of "somebody's children"

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A rehearsal shot of the cast from the University of Michigan production of Somebody's Children

Rehearsal photo of somebody's children by Hector Flores Komatsu.

Thirteen years ago, the Found Spaces Theater Company in Los Angeles commissioned a play from José Casas about homelessness. “I was really struggling with the play,” he recalls. “It was like a bad afterschool special with two-dimensional characters.” 

Then the artistic director gave Casas an article about homeless kids who lived in motels, kids with fathers who were absent or deceased, who live near Disneyland and suffer “earth-shattering tragedies each day.“ At once, he was inspired by the thought of some children enjoying a theme park, while children in abject poverty were near enough to hear their laughter.

And somebody’s children took shape quickly. The University of Michigan is staging a production at the Arthur Miller Theatre through April 2.

In Transition: Jeffry Chastang's “Under Ceege” explores tension, change, and stasis between a son, a mother, and her community

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

Jonathan West and Sandra Love Aldridge in Purple Rose Theatre's production of Under Ceege. Scene: A theater stage is set up to look like a living room and kitchen blending together. A man is kneeling next to an older woman who is sitting in a La-Z-Boy-style chair. He is holding up a handheld mirror. They both look serious.

Jonathan West and Sandra Love Aldridge star in Purple Rose Theatre's production of Jeffry Chastang's Under Ceege. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

In June 2021, after the brutal murder of George Floyd and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, many theater artists began to wonder if they had done enough to combat inequality. American Theatre published responses of a sampling of theaters across the country, and the magazine’s editor, Rob Weinert-Kendt, wrote that artists “must not let this moment of potential for change … pass us by.”

The Purple Rose Theatre Company felt the call of the times, too. While founder Jeff Daniels was on Broadway as Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defended victims of prejudice in To Kill a Mockingbird, he wrote to the theater’s supporters expressing pride in the Rose’s diversity record: 30% of productions featured a person of color, Daniels reported. Seven productions centered on a diverse community, and four were written by playwrights of color. “But it’s not enough,” Daniels added. 

So, the artistic director at the time, Guy Sanville, launched an initiative to seek out artists who are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color. The theater started holding acting auditions in Detroit as well as at its home in the mostly white city of Chelsea. Sanville appointed Lynch Travis, an African-American actor and director who had been part of the Rose company, to be the chief diversity enrichment advisor.  

“When I was engaged by the Purple Rose to find more diverse voices to put on their stage, we invited 12 local playwrights,” says Travis. After Daniels and Sanville selected Jeffry Chastang’s Under Ceege, they asked Travis—who had been one of the first people to read the play—to direct it. 

Under Seege started previews on January 20, fully opens on January 28, and runs through March 12.

Theatrical Poetry: Director Malcolm Tulip discusses his U-M production of Federico García Lorca's "Yerma"

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Yerma

“Theater is poetry that gets up from the page and makes itself human. And when it does that, it talks and shouts, cries and despairs.”

--Federico García Lorca 

The plot of Yerma -- a story about a woman’s struggles with societal pressures to conceive -- isn’t what makes Lorca’s 1934 tragedy a must-see classic.

What gives it power are the songs, dance, heightened gesture, and visual elements -- the poetry. “Lorca called Yerma ‘a tragic poem in six paintings,’” notes Malcolm Tulip, director of the University of Michigan production running February 20-23 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.  

“Most people assume Yerma is the name of the protagonist, a woman who hasn’t been able to have a child," Tulip says, but the word means “barren” in Spanish and perhaps it isn’t a name at all. Perhaps it “describes this woman’s inner and outer worlds. Yerma here might be a naming of the woman's reluctance or inability to accept the seed of a man who she married out of duty. ... The landscape, like her womb, is uninhabited, possibly uninhabitable."

Great Lakes Ghosts: Roustabout Theatre Troupe Haunts Ypsi With New Zettelmaier Play 

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Julia Garlotte and Dan Johnson in Roustabout Theatre Troupe's production of Haunted.

Julia Garlotte and Dan Johnson are two of the actors who play multiple roles in Roustabout Theatre Troupe's production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s Haunted: The Great Lakes Ghost Project.

Joseph Zettelmaier’s Haunted: The Great Lakes Ghost Project. which closes the Roustabout Theatre Troupe’s season at the Ypsilanti Experimental Space (YES) this month, might never have been written if the founder of another Washtenaw County theater hadn’t encouraged him to write. After studying acting at Shorter University in Georgia, he returned to his family in Michigan and secured an acting apprenticeship at the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea. 

Playwriting? That wasn’t Zettelmaier’s plan. 

Apprentices at the Rose often perform on nights when the theater doesn’t have public performances. Sometimes they do original pieces, so Zettelmaier tried his hand at a few pages. “The night we did it, Jeff [Daniels] came up to me and said, ‘Give me 100 pages.’ I had an interest in playwriting, but it was Jeff’s interest in my interest that got me started,” Zettelmaier recalls.

Milestones: The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Celebrates its 50th Anniversary at Rackham

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Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Clockwise from the upper left: David Finckel by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco; Gloria Chien by Tristan Cook; Kristin Lee and David Shifrin by Tristan Cook; Matthew Lipman by Tristan Cook.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a milestone. So, co-artistic director and cellist David Finckel says it was fitting that CMS begins this season with milestones in the art of chamber music. “We identified pieces of music that have somehow influenced the way chamber music evolved,” he says.

The program CMS will bring to Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor on October 11 includes four of these works: Harry Burleigh’s Southland Sketches (1916), Antonin Dvořák’s Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello in E-flat Major, Op. 97 (1893), Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1941), and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944), originally called Ballet for Martha (Graham). 

“The story of Dvořák in America is colorful and entertaining,” says Finckel.

Turns out, it is Burleigh’s story, too. 

What's Love Got to Do With It: The Purple Rose's comedy "Welcome to Paradise" offers a dreamlike romance -- or is it real at all?

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Purple Rose Theatre's Welcome to Paradise

Rory (Ryan Black) and Evelyn (Ruth Crawford) trip the light fandango in The Purple Rose Theatre's production of Julie Marino’s Welcome to Paradise. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

In Julie Marino’s play Welcome to Paradise, a young man who has been backpacking through Europe helps an elderly woman who is having difficulty at the airport. Rory doesn’t just help Evelyn to her cab. He accompanies her to her beach house on the fictional Caribbean island of St. Sebastian, a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere. Exhausted, he tries to find an inexpensive place to spend the night, but accommodations are costly in paradise. She invites him for the night.

He stays a good deal longer. He rearranges her flowers. He rearranges her furniture to better see the sunset from the couch.  And just by being there, he rearranges her life. 

In a detailed and nuanced performance, Ruth Crawford embodies Evelyn, at turns feisty and flirtatious, basking in the attention of an attractive fellow as young as her grandson who caters to her needs before she knows she has them. Ryan Black is a fine Rory, thoroughly at home in Evelyn’s home and life.