The Penny Seats Theatre Company has never been afraid to produce shows that are daring, out of the mainstream, or sometimes both at once. The troupe's upcoming production, Matt & Ben, written by Mindy Kaling of The Office and The Mindy Project fame, with her friend and The Office writer Brenda Withers, combines both of these elements. The play, set in 1995, tells a hilarious story: then struggling actors/writers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, receive a fortuitous boon when a script (which becomes Good Will Hunting, the movie which launched both of their careers) falls from the sky into the apartment they share.
Kaling and Withers, who starred as Affleck and Damon respectively, in the original Off-Broadway production of Matt & Ben, wrote the satire with the intention that the two male roles be played by women. This, combined with the absurdity of the plot, creates an evening of theatre that is sure to have the audience thinking, considering social norms, and laughing uproariously, all at once.
I spoke with Allison Megroet and Allyson Miko, who will play Matt and Ben in the Penny Seats production, which opens at Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in Ann Arbor on April 5.
The Penny Seats Theatre Company has a celebrated history of presenting high-quality productions of shows that may not be especially well known. Peter and the Starcatcher, and Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well... are some of the just-out-of-the-mainstream productions the theater company has offered the last few years.
The Penny Seats' newest production, Edges, written by University of Michigan alumni Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of The Greatest Showman, La La Land, and Dear Evan Hansen fame) is no exception. Edges is a song cycle, which means there isn’t much plot, but instead a central theme; in this case, navigating the adventures and struggles that come with being in your 20s. (The musical's best-known tune is "Be My Friend," aka "The Facebook Song.")
Edges is being staged at the Kerrytown Concert House from Feb. 8-16. I spoke with cast members Matthew Pecek, Kristin McSweeney, and Logan Balcom about the differences between working on a song cycle and a more traditional musical, the show’s relevance for people in their 20s and beyond, and more.
British playwright Nick Payne’s celebrated two-person play Constellations deals with quantum multiverses: multiple universes in which many different outcomes can come from the same, or a similar starting point. But don’t worry, you don’t need a Ph.D. in theoretical physics to understand and love the play, which is at Theatre Nova until Feb. 18.
Around the holidays, theater troupes often feature classic Christmas plays familiar to Americans. But for the past two years, Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova has presented an American twist on a British Christmas tradition. A panto, short for pantomime, is a variety show that developed in England in the 18th century that employs song, dance, comedy, and much more to tell a Christmas-related story.
This year’s panto, The Year Without a Panto Clause, is written by Theatre Nova artistic director Carla Milarch and features original songs by the show’s music director, R. MacKenzie Lewis, who has composed music for Nova's previous two pantos as well as for last year’s hit musical Irrational.
I spoke with Milarch about the inspiration for her pantos and what makes this show unique.
Q: For readers that may not be familiar with the panto tradition, would you explain what different activities make up these performances?
A: I always describe a panto as a mash-up of a musical comedy, stand-up comedy, a vaudeville act, and an old-fashioned melodrama, with a heaping helping of The Three Stooges thrown in. There's a good deal of falling down, chases, booing the villain, cheering the hero, political humor, and jokes -- and, of course, candy for the kids.
Q: Theatre Nova has put on a panto for their holiday show for the last two seasons. Whose idea was it to showcase an art form that is rarely seen in the U.S.?
A: It was Emilio Rodriguez's (of Black and Brown Theatre and now UMS). He had seen a panto in Los Angeles and suggested it.
Q: How do you get the ideas for each show, and specifically, how did you come up with the story of this year’s show?
A: A traditional panto is based on a children's story, usually a fairy tale. In Britain, they do Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Dick Wittington and His Cat, among others. We wanted to put an American twist on ours, so we decided to narrow it down to Christmas stories that Americans would be familiar with. So far, we've done a twist on Rudolph (An Almost British Christmas), The Nutcracker (Sugar Plum Panto) and now The Year Without a Panto Clause.
Q: Can you talk a little about your collaboration process with R. MacKenzie Lewis? Does Lewis write some of the music for the shows?
A: Between our theater gigs and our kids, Lewis and I are some of the busiest people I know. So, we do a lot of work remotely. I come up with lyrics and ship them off to him; he tweaks them and writes the music and ships them to the actors. They learn them and I eventually hear them. It's unusual because I trust him so implicitly that I know whatever he does I will love. I literally have not heard some of the songs he's written for the show yet, but I know they will be fantastic!
Q: Do you both pick the popular songs that will be included in the narrative or does Lewis do it all himself?
A: I actually pick the popular songs as I'm writing the play because, usually, the inspiration for what's needed will hit me in the moment.
Q: During every performance of the show, there will be a different special guest performer who will be a small part of the variety act portion of the panto. Is this something unique to Nova’s pantos, or did this originate in England as well? Can you tell us some of the guests you’ve had in the past, and give us a preview of who we might expect this year?
A: This is all a part of the panto tradition. We have wonderful special guests this year. We're bringing back crowd favorites Gemini and magician Jeff Boyer as well as a lot of local theater folks you'll recognize from shows at NOVA and around town. I'm hearing rumors that Santa himself might make an appearance at some point in the run (the REAL Santa, not the one in the show!)
Q: What can audiences expect from this year’s panto, and what are you most excited for them to see?
A: The thing that I'm excited about the most this year, is that I think that this panto, in particular, holds up more as an actual play than the previous two. A panto is a very specific style, with lots of stuff in it that isn't your typical theater fare. In both past years I think we've been successful at creating a show that appeals to young kids, with lots of falling down, zaniness, etc. I've even had some Brits tell me it was "just like home!" This year, I think the play, although it maintains all of the zaniness, trust me, also has a thread of a touching and heartfelt story that is genuinely moving and carries you along in the more traditional theater vein.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this panto?
A: The premise of the play is that 2017 has been a bummer of a year, and Santa, like many of us, is starting to feel too depressed to carry on with life as usual. So, he decides to cancel Christmas. Jingle and Jangle the elves then set off on a hilarious journey to parts hither and yon to find some Christmas spirit to get Santa back in the saddle. Hilarity, zaniness, and musical comedy ensue. But I think at the core of the play is the genuine question we all feel of how we find hope in the world today. I think the play will give the audience some hope, but at the very least we'll give them a much-needed respite and a chance to laugh at our troubles, dance our cares away and focus in on the true spirit of the season. I'm happy with the way it turned out. I think audiences will be, too.
Emily Slomovits is an Ann Arbor freelance musician, theater artist, and writer. She plays music with her father and uncle (aka Gemini) and others, is a member of Spinning Dot Theatre, and has performed with The Encore Musical Theatre Company, Performance Network, and Wild Swan Theater.
“The Year Without a Panto Clause” runs Dec. 1-31 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor. For tickets and more information, visit theatrenova.org.
When we hear the word “orchestra,” we usually think of a group of musicians who play classical music. But the trailblazing Brooklyn-based orchestra The Knights -- coming to Rackham Auditorium on Sunday, Nov. 12 courtesy of UMS -- are known for turning the word on its head by challenging orchestral norms and often using untraditional environments (from parks to bars) and repertoire (from avant-gardist Karlheinz Stockhausen to singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens) to connect to a wide range of audiences.
Such a genre-bending, rule-breaking orchestra needs soloists who are just as adventurous, and for this tour, The Knights have teamed up with two superstars of instrumental music, Avi Avital and Kinan Azmeh.
Both Avital, an Israeli mandolin virtuoso, and Azmeh, a celebrated Syrian clarinetist and composer, produce just as diverse and tremendously compelling a repertoire as The Knights, and the combination of these three forces is a treat not to be missed. Their program on Sunday will jump from their unique arrangements of pieces by Purcell, Bach, and Schubert to some of Azmeh’s own compositions, including one he wrote specifically for The Knights, Avital, and himself. They will also feature a piece by Knights co-leader and Silkroad Ensemble member Colin Jacobsen as well as traditional Middle Eastern, Balkan, and klezmer pieces.
I spoke with Avital and Azmeh about their solo work, collaboration with the Knights, and more.
Her voice is untutored and unassuming but deeply evocative and powerful, and her songs go straight to the heart in a way that is personal, candid, and unaffected by artifice or unnecessary frills. Every line of every song is its own entire world, its own little gem of a thought. Her straightforward and relaxed style of performance lends these songs a truthfulness which is best experienced up close.
“Small venues lend themselves to a more personal show. Small rooms suit my music and storytelling,” she says.
On Saturday, Oct. 21, the Ann Arbor Symphony will present a program called “Ludwig and the Kings.” “Ludwig,” of course, represents luminary German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. But who is the King in question?
“Growing up in Israel, I had daily bible studies and was fascinated with the complex characters of some of the prophets and kings," said conductor Arie Lipsky, who has led the symphony for 17 seasons. "This concert presents a rare musical outlook on King Solomon, known to be the wisest man on earth.”
If you don’t live in New York City or London, and perhaps don’t have the money to go to The Metropolitan Opera or the National Theatre on a regular basis, you might feel like you’re missing out on some amazing arts events.
But HD broadcasts of productions from these venues to movie theatres around the world are a way for people all around the world to see legendary works like La Bohéme, Hamlet, Everyman,Der Rosenkavalier, and more, performed by legendary performers such as Helen Mirren, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Plácido Domingo, Vittorio Grigolo, and Renée Fleming. NT Live has been broadcasting shows from the National and other theaters in London to movie theaters since 2009, and The Met: Live in HD has been broadcasting operas since 2006.
The Revolutionists takes place in 1793, during the French Revolution and the start of the Reign of Terror. But Theatre Nova's production of Lauren Gunderson’s play is remarkably fresh and relevant today. The characters’ language and mannerisms are entirely present-day, and the four strong women the play portrays are fighting for freedoms that many women, racial minorities, and the disenfranchised still do not enjoy even today.
Even though The Revolutionists is set during one of the most horrifying periods in history, and it’s clear that not enough has changed about these issues since then, the play is far from a downer.
It is, in fact, mostly a comedy.
And what a premise for a comedy.
Katie Geddes' warm voice and inviting onstage personality make you feel like you are getting a virtual hug at her concerts. And maybe that feeling will make you want to hug someone, too.
Her voice is a cross between Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, and her music selections hark back to gospel and country stars of old, but there is a contemporary edge to her presence and vocal stylings. The result is a sound that makes her sound simultaneously modern and timeless.