In the summer of 2011, Lauren London, now general counsel at Eastern Michigan University, brought together a troupe of unpretentious and fun-loving thespians who created the Penny Seats Theatre Company. The idea was to offer theater tickets that were about the price of movie tickets, affordable for all, echoing the penny seats available to Elizabethans who came to shows at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
After opening its first production at the bandshell in West Park, Penny Seats performed in assorted venues, outdoors and in, including a restaurant, a church, and the rehearsal room of a theater -- but never in a theater. They struggled with imperfect acoustics and limited equipment, becoming more technically savvy each season. And each season, Penny Seats did more and better productions. Now, they do four-show seasons that include summers in the park.
Over the years, the company produced musicals, dramas, comedies, and cabaret shows, including some original works, such as Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Renaissance Man. Horror was on the menu, too, last October, with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and in the park last summer with Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger and the musical based on Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
There was no thought of making a habit of horror. Then Zettelmaier had an idea, which he presented to London and the rest of the board.
At one point during Thursday night’s sold out, joyous on-stage conversation with Grammy, Tony, and Oscar award-winning songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- who met and started writing songs together when they were U-M musical theater students (’06) -- surprise guest moderator Darren Criss (Glee) stated what many of us were thinking: “Collectively, we’re a Michigan EGOT.”
Yes, Criss (’09) arrived in Ann Arbor fresh off his Emmy win for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, while Pasek and Paul came to promote a newly released novelization of their hit Broadway show, Dear Evan Hansen.
But the nearly two-hour event, presented by Literati Bookstore at U-M’s Rackham Auditorium, mostly felt like a chance to crash a reunion of really talented, witty friends who’d also, along the way, perform a few songs and a short reading.
You don’t have to be a big spender to enjoy the University of Michigan’s engaging, dance-happy return to the 1960s, Sweet Charity.
Sweet Charity is a lighter, thinner adaptation of Federico Fellini’s film Nights of Cabiria. The Neil Simon book changes the prostitutes of Rome into New York City taxi dancers at the Fandango Dance Hall. And the story is a mere pretext for the often-exhilarating dance numbers and clever songs.
With music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity is always on the move from the minute that Nevada Koenig struts on stage as the ever hopeful and usually disappointed Charity Hope Valentine. This is a musical about frustrated romance, but it’s also a musical about dance and movement.
Though the title Night and Day initially calls to mind a famous Cole Porter tune, U-M’s new production of the same name -- consisting of a pair of playwright Charles Mee’s myth-inspired “dance/theatre works” -- bears absolutely no relation to the song.
Well, unless director Malcolm Tulip and his artistic collaborators decide it does, that is.
How could a theatrical presentation be so malleable? That’s both the allure and challenge of Mee’s work. Dubbed the “public domain playwright,” Mee draws on old stories, re-tells them with new text, and offers them up freely online by way of his (re)making project. Built on the idea that “there is no such thing as an original play,” (re)making invites artists to use Mee’s plays as the creative starting point more than a blueprint.
“It’s this incredible mixture of working with text, but then devising a whole new piece, too, because of the liberty he gives you to alter it and to remake his work,” said Tulip. “For me, the approach was discovering what all the parts meant, and what the skeleton of what he amassed looks like. Because even he’s bringing together elements from other sources, making a kind of collage. So you end up talking about and determining what you keep, what the thrust of each section is, and how you remake or rewrite them.”
You can’t typecast Jeff Daniels. He’s played someone dumb (and dumber), a highly intelligent newsman, and lots of other characters with assorted traits, interests, and careers.
He’s got roots in the theater, and he’s equally comfortable on the big and little screen. He also writes and performs folk songs. As founder of The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, he’s produced plays.
Jeff Daniels writes plays, too.
Of course, you can’t expect Daniels to limit himself to one style or subject. His 17 plays, all presented at the Rose, include a searing look at friendships between people with different incomes that mixed realism with farcical elements, a political drama that showed the way the tragic situation in Flint has impacted relationships, and a comedy about hunting set in the U.P. He’s written in the style of Samuel Beckett and Neil Simon with equal ease.
And the Daniels play that’s on the boards at the Purple Rose now, Diva Royale, is a lively slapstick comedy that feels very much like a musical comedy. The opening night audience responded to the musicality of the show, clapping after scenes the way spectators at musicals usually clap after musical numbers.
The annual Rasa Festival is a unique India-themed multi-arts festival in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, produced by our multi-arts organization, Akshara which I co-founded a few years ago. Now in its second year, I conceived of and started this festival in 2017 as an exciting month-long celebration of the arts in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti areas. The Rasa Festival features the arts, from and inspired by the rich cultural heritage of India. Partnering with local arts organizations, it presents several unique and exciting, traditional and innovative programs in performing, visual, literary, films, wellness, and culinary arts.
I feel that more than ever before, it is important for our communities to discover, appreciate, and embrace the richness of cultural diversity, and for us to open ourselves to influences from all over the world. The arts offer a beautiful window to experience and rejoice in the richness of cultures, both far and near.
On Friday, October 5 and Saturday, October 6, the Rasa Festival will conclude the 2018 programming with a grand performing arts event at Washtenaw Community College's Towsley Auditorium in Ypsilanti. This year’s performing arts offering is exciting because it includes dance, music, and theater. In curating the two-day program, I wanted to bring a range of art forms and artists from India and other parts of the US as well as from Michigan.
It’s not unusual for well-known performers to speak to students at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Just last year, Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons both stopped at the school.
Alec Baldwin’s visit this week is a little extra special, however: He’ll take part in a full reading of Death of a Salesman that involves students, faculty, and members of the community, presented by the University Musical Society along with the SMTD.
UMS President Matthew VanBesien came to town from the New York Philharmonic, which has worked with Baldwin in the past. Word got around that Baldwin was interested in working with students, he heard that Salesman author Arthur Miller was a U-M graduate, and everything fell into place.
“We wanted to use a combination of faculty, students, and guest artists,” said Daniel Cantor, an associate professor of theater and drama who is directing the play. “All those things came together in this reading.”
Encore Musical Theatre continues its love affair with Stephen Sondheim with A Little Night Music, Sondheim’s wistful and rueful look at love.
Night Music, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, was, as the Encore program notes “suggested by” one of Ingmar Bergman’s rare comedies, Smiles of a Summer’s Night. The setting is still Sweden at the turn of the 20th Century. A successful lawyer has recently married a much younger woman who has remained virginal during their eight months of marriage. She has developed a growing attraction to the lawyer’s seminarian son, who is wrestling with deep sexual conflicts of his own.
Things become complicated when the lawyer, Fredrik, comes home with tickets to see the noted stage actress Desiree Armfeldt, an old flame for whom the embers are still glowing. Desiree has started to grow weary of life as a touring actress and her affair with the obnoxious and married Count Carl-Magnus. Fredrik’s troubled married life and his love triangle with Desiree and Carl-Magnus eventually play out in the pastoral setting Desiree’s mother’s country house.
This might sound very serious, and it is, but it’s also serious comedy.
Molly has a hole in her head. Memories are escaping through it. Her doctor thinks that’s entirely possible. At least, that’s the way Molly hears what he says.
Fred Smith, who built a statue park in Milvotchkee, Visconsin--Molly gave tours of the park for many years -- was struck by lightning. He lived for 12 years after that. What happened during those years? Molly is obsessed with this story, which may or may not have some relationship to reality.
The Kickshaw Theatre’s current offering, Laura Jacqmin’s Milvotchkee, Visconsin, is set in various locations in Milvotchkee, a place you won’t find on any map, and in Molly’s mind as she descends into dementia. Molly encounters a variety of people in places that include a hospital, a movie theater, and her distorted memory.
Theatre Nova’s September offering, The Totalitarians, centers on a campaign manager trying to help her candidate win an election in Nebraska. The candidate, Penelope Easter, is an earthy, compulsive woman whose tenuous relationship to facts seems, well, familiar. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s dark, witty comedy touches on politics, revolutions, and the twists, turns, and perils that come with both.
Pulp spoke with Diane Hill, who plays Penelope Easter, director Carla Milarch.