Review: Purple Rose gives first class world debut for Gaps in the Fossil Record

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Mark Colson and Aja Brandmeier explore Gaps in the Fossil Record in PRTC's latest production.

Mark Colson and Aja Brandmeier explore Gaps in the Fossil Record in PRTC's latest production. / Photo by Sean Carter Photography

A paleontologist walks on the stage. Behind him is a projection of a famous and enigmatic fossil find. The bones of two ancient bodies are seemingly entwined, facing each other.

Lovers, religious sacrifices, bodies covered in a long ago volcanic eruption? No one knows, everyone has a theory or two.

The paleontologist is an absent-minded professor, a bit of a joker, a man who admits being more comfortable on a dig conversing with ancient bones than in front of a classroom. But he has always been drawn to those dusty bones and their secrets and what they might say about love, community, and life.

This is the beginning of Matt Letscher’s richly-conceived comic drama Gaps in the Fossil Record, making its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.

Gaps is an interesting conversation across generations, a family drama, an emotional volcano at times, and even a bit of eco-science fiction. That it all works so well is a tribute to director Guy Sanville and his creative team, three superb actors, and the raw intelligence, wit, and insight of Letscher’s play.

Richard, the awkward paleontologist, is a very late bloomer. He’s given his life over to those lovely bones and shunned people. Now he’s a middle-aged college teacher who finds himself loved by a 20-year-old student. They’ve come to give the good news to the young woman’s mother, with whom she has a complicated, if loving, relationship.

This provides the bones for an interesting exchange of secrets, fears, hopes, and explanations across several years. To reveal too much of the plot would spoil some of the play’s appeal. Suffice it to say that the three characters go through some big changes that open both wounds and revelations.

Mark Colson is a gaunt, shambling figure as Richard, at first a nice guy, though seemingly ill fit for Jane, his assistant on a recent dig. As the play progresses, Colson must deal with the deepest emotions. He goes from sly wit, to anxiety-ridden unemployed middle-ager in crisis, to an old man with cognitive problems. Colson finds the core in each of these transformations, and in the beginning and at the end is our guide. His strongest emotional moments are also some of his more hilarious moments, a testimony to just how complex Letscher’s play is to perform.

Michelle Mountain is riveting as Susan, Jane’s mother and a widow of a complicated and tragic marriage. She also navigates the shifting tones beautifully, from horrified mother “losing” her daughter to an old geezer, to sympathetic mother-in-law struggling with her own desires, to troubled grandmother. Mountain’s Susan is blunt, foul-mouthed, tender, warm, and finally a survivor through life’s ups and downs. Every emotion is real.

Aja Brandmeier takes on two roles; the love-struck Jane, finding love in a world shy father figure, and Meredith, Richard and Jane’s teenage daughter. As Jane she has a kidding, ribald, and good but sometimes tense relationship with her mother. Brandmeier captures that tension excellently and is also convincing in portraying her affection for her smart but socially awkward older lover. But Brandmeier’s strongest moments come as Meredith, a purple-haired punk with a kindly heart. She tends to an aging father who doesn’t know her and here the character is a shy, tentative girl, more like her father. She’s also someone bewildered by a world in chaos. Brandmeier holds her body as if trying to hug herself and shield herself from a cold world.

Sanville brings this together with a rewarding simplicity. The acting is sharply in sync. The comedy never falters and the emotional highs never become too overwrought. The production values are high.

Vince Mountain’s gray set is basically a bare stage, a backdrop of white wall doors for projections of bones, with furniture pieces moved in and out efficiently. Lighting and projection design by Noelle Stollmack and sound design by Tom Whalen are integral to the production’s success and take center stage for a while at the end.

Gaps in the Fossil Record should find a place in many regional theaters and may well get its shot at Broadway, but Letscher should count himself lucky and well-served by this superb Purple Rose world premiere production.

The play received recognition with the 2015 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. The Foundation provides financial support to theatres with established reputations for producing new plays. The grants have provided funds for extended rehearsal time to develop plays and schedule productions. Fifteen of these plays have gone on to Broadway including the 2014 Tony Award winner All The Way and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner Next to Normal.

Playwright Matt Letscher is a Grosse Pointe native, a 1992 graduate of the University of Michigan, and an actor on stage, film, and television.


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.


Gaps in the Fossil Record continues at The Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street, Chelsea, at 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 pm matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 pm matinees Sundays through May 28. For ticket information, call the box office at (734) 433-7673 or visit http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.

Review: Civic Theater goes barefoot in the park with laughs and a bit of romance

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Colleen Davis's Corie tries to talk down Karl Kasischke's Paul in the A2CT production of Barefoot in the Park.

Colleen Davis's Corie tries to talk down Karl Kasischke's Paul in the A2CT production of Barefoot in the Park.

Barefoot in the Park was an early Neil Simon Broadway hit.

It had the bantering dialog, the sarcastic asides, and the frazzled New York setting of most of his plays. But it's a romantic comedy without the neurotic edge or the bitter insights into the stress of the big city of his later plays, nor the depth of character of his biographical plays. It has its funny and its pleasant moments, but it hasn't aged as well as his later plays, perhaps because anxiety is funnier.

The Ann Arbor Civic Theater is presenting Barefoot at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the University of Michigan north campus. Director Wendy Wright notes that the play is a sweet product of its time that isn’t often performed. She also notes that Simon, the most successful comedy playwright in Broadway history, is having a moment at regional theaters and it’s a good time to take another look at the play that really launched him into orbit on Broadway and on film.

The play is set squarely into its 1960s time period - in this production 1965, to be exact - to make use of a groovy Top 40 soundtrack of the times.

The play concerns newly-weds who are setting up their first "home" in a cramped, one-bedroom walk up apartment on Manhattan's east side. Corie Bratter is trying her best to feather this love nest for her lawyer husband after a six-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel. She's nervous about his reaction to their new home that he has yet to see. She's also nervous about the reaction of her perfectionist mother.

The apartment house has many eccentric tenants but the only one we see is a charming old flirt who lives in an even more cramped attic apartment.

Even when the play was new, the relations between men and women, especially in New York City, were already changing, as Simon's later plays would show. But here the tension is between a nervous stay-at-home wife and her striver husband. The focus is on Corie's attempts to match her tart-tongued mother with the sweet-talking old gentleman, Victor. She also wants to loosen up her conventional lawyer husband enough so he can "walk barefoot in the park," even in February.

Colleen Davis is bright and cheery as Corie. She sets the tone for the play, eager to please and increasingly upset when things don’t go as planned. She is appropriately charmed by the old rascal and sees him in contrast to her stolid husband.

Karl Kasischke as Paul is the more practical of the two. Comically he comes into his own at the end when he finally loosens up for Corie. This comes after an argument that could be a bit more sharply played. I think Simon was looking for a bit of a slamming-door farce in this scene. Things pick up when Kassischke’s Paul goes into a bit of inspired hysterics that is the valve release that Simon has been building toward.

Ellen Finch as Corie's mother Ethel gives an excellent performance. She gets the funniest lines and she handles them with authority - droll, biting, but really affectionate. She's charming.

Larry Rusinsky gets to overact as Victor Velasco, the character that is meant to be broad. He is someone for whom life is a stage. His scenes with Corie and her mother are amusing and silly in a 1950s comedy way.

Also amusing in a small role as telephone installer Harry Pepper is Theo Polley. He sounds like New York and he also has a fine sense of timing.

This is not top drawer Simon. Some of the jokes are too rooted in their time period and in this case don’t even acknowledge the changing world of young women at the time. It lacks the insecurity that would be at the heart of later Simon. But it does have something that would be rarer in later Simon plays with the exception of The Goodbye Girl: It has a romance and an affirmation that love conquers all.


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.


Barefoot in the Park runs through April 24, 2016 at the Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, Ann Arbor. Buy tickets online, or call (734) 971-2228 (A2CT).

Review: Actresses make sweet dreams of Encore's 'Always ... Patsy Cline'

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Emmi Veinbergs and Sonja Marquis go out walking after midnight in Always...Patsy Cline.

Emmi Veinbergs and Sonja Marquis go out walking after midnight in Always...Patsy Cline. / Photo by Michele Anliker

For many famous entertainers, the scariest thing in the world is to see someone rushing at them and screaming, "Oh my god, it's you. I am your biggest fan!"

But apparently for a young Patsy Cline, just on the verge of becoming a country and pop music phenomenon, a down-to-earth woman and fanatic devotee was just what she needed to stay grounded in the lives of the people for whom her music was a joy, a comfort, and a reassurance that they were not alone in their trials and tribulations.

Two extraordinary performers bring comedy and pathos to the unusual friendship between Cline and a divorced Houston mother of two in Always ... Patsy Cline at the Encore Theatre in Dexter.

The play was conceived by Ted Swindley as basically a musical revue of Cline's beloved catalog of songs through the eyes of her friend Louise Seger. Though we know how the story ends, with Cline's tragic death in a plane crash in 1963 at a shockingly young 30 years old, this is primarily a rollicking, laugh out loud comedy balanced by the plaintive sadness of so many of Cline's songs.

Sonja Marquis is a blunt, in-your-face Louise Seger. She's the kind of woman who harasses radio DJs, bellows when she wants attention, drinks like a sailor, and loves sad old country songs. Marquis is hilarious as she struts across the stage telling her story, swaggering and joshing with the audience, doing broad imitations of the sorry men in her life, and charging ahead without a second thought to form a lasting friendship with a soon-to-be very famous star. But Marquis also brings a poignancy to Seger, a lonely women in a bad marriage when she first hear's Cline's remarkable voice. She drops everything to badger a DJ to play "I Fall to Pieces" over and over, knowing what solace it brings her. That roughness and bluntness combined with a deep warmth plays out in her mostly long distance relationship with Cline.

Emmi Veinbergs becomes Patsy Cline. Standing on a honky tonk stage with a four-piece country band, Veinbergs shows that she has mastered every inflection of Cline's plaintive but clear and ringing voice. Cline was one of the first crossover country stars. Her distinct phrasing and soft Southern accent made her records appealing beyond the then narrow Southern country-western fan base. Veinbergs has the voice down perfectly and she also captures the way Cline swayed as she sang while avoiding the broad arm gestures of other singers. Veinbergs also bears a strong resemblance to the singer.

The catalog of great Patsy Cline songs provides an entertaining cabaret of music by some of country's greatest songwriters, who stood in line hoping that Cline would deign to sing their songs. Veinbergs does drop-dead renderings of "Crazy," "Sweet Dreams," "She's Got You," and "If You've Got Leavin' On Your Mind." She also covers Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" and the Kitty Wells hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."

Cline sings that song in the honky tonk where she meets her No. 1 fan Seger. She is singing along to music on a jukebox, growing distant and wistful because Cline is also a fan and her life plays out the drama in Wells' record as her songs will in the lives of millions of listeners just like Louise Seger.

In a later scene in Seger's kitchen, where Cline has been shanghaied, the two women lay out their grievances through songs, particularly "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray" and "Crazy." Veinbergs' singing and Marquis' humorous commiseration are brilliant demonstrations of the emotional power of country music to express the most basic human needs and provide solace.

These two fine actresses under the direction of Thalia V. Schramm get to the heart of the matter in these two scenes where a common understanding is played out with special delicacy. Dan Mikat is the music director and Veinbergs and the band would be welcome at the Opry any time.

The Encore set designed by Kristen Gribben is amazing in its detail and flexibility. In one part of the stage is a typical 1950s style kitchen, small but tidy. The rest of the stage is a wood paneled honky tonk that also doubles for the Grand Ole Opry stage. It is nicely detailed with photos, Schlitz promotional lights, and other bar room details.


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.


"Always ... Patsy Cline" continues Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Saturday and Sundays at 3 pm through May 8, at the Dexter Musical Theatre Company in downtown Dexter. For tickets, call (734)268-6200.

Review: U-M's Guys and Dolls has it all, song, dance, and a big heart

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Hannah Flam's Miss Adelaide loves Joseph Sammour's Nathan Detroit a bushel and a peck in U-M SMTD's production of Guys and Dolls.  Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

Hannah Flam's Miss Adelaide loves Joseph Sammour's Nathan Detroit a bushel and a peck in U-M SMTD's production of Guys and Dolls. / Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

Great theater has the power to magically take us to another place and time and introduce us to the most interesting and colorful people.

This weekend the Power Center is being transformed into Noo Yawk City, circa 1950s. Specifically it's the "devil's own street" Broadway with gamblers, chorus girls, and missionaries out to save their souls in a dynamic, eye-popping production of the beloved musical classic The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance production brings it all together: superb singing, beautiful choreography, sharp humor, and a flexible set and lighting that makes good use of the large Power Center stage.

Guys and Dolls is a "musical fable" that makes lovable mugs of the denizens of Broadway based on the streetwise stories of Damon Runyon with a book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Loesser created one of the finest scores and some of the most loved songs in the Broadway repertoire, drawing on a variety of styles, rhythms, and vocal arrangements. Loesser brought high class music to the lives of the city's "less reputable" residents.

Big musicals are always about strong collaboration. Here director Mark Madam, musical director and conductor Cynthia Kortman Westphal, and choreographer Mara Newbery Greer have put all the pieces together to bring out the best in their student cast.

The story is familiar. Nathan Detroit, proprietor of the "oldest-established, permanent floating crap game" in New York, is having trouble finding a place to host a dice game for a visiting Chicago gambler Big Jule. He is also trying to maintain relations with his "doll" Adelaide, star chanteuse of the Hot Box Nightclub.

Slick, suave, and daring gambler Sky Masterson is back in town and Nathan thinks he's found a way to raise funds to rent a space by betting that babe magnet Masterson will not get a nod from the uptight Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission.

This simple plot creates the frame for all that music, complex dance routines, comedy, and romance, and the UM cast seems to be savoring every minute of it.

Will Branner brings a rich baritone and a bit of swagger to Sky. He moves smoothly, as he should, from confirmed playboy to romantically devoted swain. He does a fine job on "Luck Be a Lady."

He meets his match in Solea Pfeiffer's Sarah Brown. As Pfeiffer moves from uptight missionary to a dame in love she handles a sweet transition from operatic soprano to a more modulated popular voice. She is especially effective when Sarah lets her guard down on a trip to devil-may-care Havana (pre Castro). Pfeiffer completely embodies the music and lyrics of "If I Were a Bell," a giddy realization that she's falling in love.

Joseph Sammour plays the less refined street tough Nathan Detroit (as suggested by his name). He fidgets, he worries, he talks tough, but he's really a softie, madly in love with his Miss Adelaide. Sammour is both charming and sly as Nathan but he rises to the occasion on his big musical moment with Adelaide, "Sue Me," which he turns into a warm testimony of his devotion.

Any production of Guys and Dolls hinges on a great Miss Adelaide, the comic spark and the emotional draw of Loesser's songs. Hannah Flam is an outstanding Adelaide: adorable, loud, gawky, and thoroughly convincing. Her musical highlights are many from the Hot Box revue numbers "A Bushel and a Peck" and "Take Back the Mink" to her duet with Pfeiffer on "Marry the Man Today." But the tall, imposing Flam makes her biggest impression on "Adelaide's Lament." She's funny but also poignant when she sings that romantic troubles are enough "to give a person a cold."

The musical really kicks into gear with "Fugue for Tinhorns" in which Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southside and Rusty Charlie tout contrapuntally why they "have the horse right here." Noah Weisbart as Nicely-Nicely, Wonza Johnson as Benny, and Tyler Leahy as Rusty handle the complex musical and lyrical blending expertly.

Weisbart and Johnson team up for the song "Guys and Dolls" and make like a seasoned vaudeville team, both in fine voice and comic timing. Weisbart is outstanding as he leads the rollicking "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat." A nicer Nicely-Nicely couldn't have been cast.

Cameron Jones has a standout moment as Arvide, the older mission leader and father figure for Sarah. Jones sings a tender "More I Can Not Wish You" in a heart-rending tenor voice, each word sharply defined.

Under Westphal's direction the musical numbers are fresh and believable and the orchestra performance is bright and strong while never overpowering the singers.

Greer's choreography is rhythmically precise and effectively handles the numerous styles that Loesser uses from show-biz tap dance to the sensuous Latin movements of Havana to an aggressively stylized crap game. It all works, the student dancers bring rich life to every scene.

Sets by Edward T. Morris and costumes by Jessica Hahn and Michayla Van Treeck capture the period with simplicity but effectively. A special note should be made of Mark Allen Berg's lighting which is effectively used with the choreography to create a sense of drama and punctuate the rhythms.


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.


Guys and Dolls continues at the Power Center on the U-M main campus at 8 pm on Friday, April 15, and Saturday, April 16, and 2 pm on Sunday, April 17. For ticket information, call 734-764-2538.

Preview: Get Hype: An Evening with Skyline Theatre

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Some of the Skyline Theatre students in Get Hype: An Evening With Skyline Theatre.

Some of the Skyline Theatre students in Get Hype: An Evening With Skyline Theatre. Photo by Lisa Gavan.

This Friday night you can enjoy an evening of entertainment by Monty Python, Shakespeare, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Lerner and Lowe when Skyline High students present "Get Hype: An Evening with Skyline Theatre."

Selections include songs from “The Pirates of Penzance” and “My Fair Lady” and modern hits like “Avenue Q” and “Hamilton.” In addition to well-known favorites, a few lesser-known gems are featured from shows like “Blood Brothers,” cult classics like “Batboy,” and a scene from a personal favorite of the director called “The Explorers Club.”

“We have 20 students performing throughout the night and each of them get a couple of moments in the spotlight,” said director Brodie H. Brockie. “We have so much talent at Skyline that, unfortunately, sometimes even really talented students never quite get a featured role, but this format gives everyone a chance to shine.”

The cast for “Get Hype” includes Desirae Nelson, Evan Murphy, Jacki Boswell, Theo Billups, Vanessa Noble, Leah Bauer, Peter Dannug, Hayla Alawi, Emily Naud, Sam Waterhouse, Amanda Wilhoit, Isabella Preissle, Cassie Ritter, Emma Gerlinger, Christina Holder, Emily Benedict, Jianmarco Barbeau, Riley O’Brien, Ava Chamberlain, and Kristina Kimball. Student stage managers Ryann Patten and Katier Arnett make sure things are running smoothly behind the scenes.

The event serves as a fundraiser for the Skyline Friends of the Arts to offer scholarships for theatre students hoping to attend the International Thespian Festival this summer at the University of Nebraska.


Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.


Friday, April 15 at 7:30 pm in the Experimental Theatre at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor. Admission is free, but a $10 donation is suggested.

Review: Give Three Cheers, and One Cheer More for UMGASS's Production of the Pinafore

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Their eyes flash with an inborn fire, their brows with scorn are wrung.

In foreground, left to right: Tom Cilluffo as Ralph Rackstraw, Lee Vahlsing as Bill Bobstay, and Natan Zamansky as Bob Becket. Photo courtesy of UMGASS.

OK, so, H.M.S. Pinafore means a lot to me. I was into theater a bunch when I was a kid, and as a sophomore in high school in Overland Park, Kansas, I found myself in the role of Ralph Rackstraw, and found my crush in the role of Josephine. Or maybe she became my crush because she was in the role of Josephine. The 80s are a little blurry these days, but I definitely remember singing Twist & Shout on a parade float. Suffice it to say, this show gives me the FEELS, and I know it like the back of my hand.

So, naturally, I approach many modern stagings of H.M.S. Pinafore with a bit of trepidation. I love the of-the-momentness of Gilbert & Sullivan, and that moment was not the Roaring 20s, or the South Pacific circa 1943, or on the bridge of a Starship, or any such nonsense. I get it, the temptation of a stunty slant on such an endlessly reheated work can be irresistible for cast and crew alike, but I'm in the audience, damme, and I'm here to see something authentic-ish!

Which is why I was so delighted by what must have been the University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society's umpteenth staging of H.M.S. Pinafore. With the exception of a small amount of clever, harmless nonsense tacked on to the beginning of each act, this was a wonderfully authentic production, with very strong leads and a talented chorus, put on at a rollicking pace with a pit orchestra spilling over into the aisles of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater.

Tom Cilluffo delivers an outstanding performance as Ralph Rackstraw. I really appreciate that UMGASS does not amplify their cast, and Cilluffo fills the hall with his mastery of the role, going for and easily nailing the high notes that even some professionals pass up. He's very funny as well, in a role that often gets played overly earnestly by high school sophomores in Kansas.

Adina Triolo as Josephine is even more excellent, anchoring the production with her talent and poise, balancing Josephine's ethereal solos with a gift for mugging as appropriate. Gilbert & Sullivan's original productions were famous for eschewing the stilted, heavily-stylized delivery of their time in favor of remarkably natural performances, and Triolo continues that tradition while still shining as a virtuoso in a challenging role. Yeah, so she also looks quite a bit like my high school crush. No, you have goosebumps.

Phillip Rhodes as Captain Corcoran does a great job with some of the show's best songs, and plays especially well with Don Regan, who is refined and funny as Sir Joseph. I will say I was disappointed by Sir Joseph's straightforward aristocratic costume; his frippery is usually a highlight of Pinafore Productions. However, Regan gets big bonus points for pronouncing "clerk" as "clark" to properly rhyme with "mark"; this is a Gilbert & Sullivan shibboleth; those who miss this rhyme should be put to death.

Andrew Burgmayer did an admirable job as Dick Deadeye, physically inhabiting the role thoroughly enough to make it a surprise when he shrugged it off for curtain call. I do wish I could have heard him a bit better, but it's a tough range. He and Rhodes did a wonderful job on "Kind Captain, I've Important Information," perhaps the only duet ever written about a torture implement.

Lee Vahlsing held the entire show together as Bill Bobstay, a role with a lot of exposition to deliver and did an outstanding job on "He is an Englishman." Vahlsing and Cilluffo were joined by U-M freshman and impressive bass Natan Zamansky on the challenging a capella sections of "A British Tar", and they nailed this song where community productions often run aground.

Lori Gould was a perfect Buttercup, adding some great asides to the role, and the director did a careful job to set up Meredith Kelly's Cousin Hebe as a love interest for Sir Joseph, which often seems to come out of nowhere once the social order inevitably goes all topsy-turvy. Surely that's not a spoiler, seeing as how THIS SHOW PREMIERED IN 1878.

All the sailors and sisters and cousins and aunts are well-rehearsed and the choreography is delightful, with some very clever and funny twists without falling into gimmickry.

My only real disappointment with this show was a truly nerdy nitpick; there's a short exchange between Sir Joseph and Hebe near the end that was a recitative in the early productions, but then became spoken dialogue. I don't care if the spoken version has been canon for 130 of the work's 138 years; I love that recitative and would have been thrilled to hear it! What do Gilbert & Sullivan know about Gilbert & Sullivan anyway?

And along those lines, there's an alternate ending where Sullivan added a chorus of "Rule, Britannia" to celebrate Queen Victoria's Jubilee. I love UMGASS's tradition of opening the show with having the audience stand and sing "God Save the Queen," and I was hoping they'd go with the Imperial ending! As you can see, these are very important concerns.

This is a fun, polished, and refreshingly straightforward production of one of the greatest works of musical theater, and a entertaining evening for total fo'c'sle noobs as well as for hopeless Savoy-savvy fussbudgets like me. Whether this is your first experience on the Saucy Ship or your hundredth, you're sure to enjoy the efforts of these safeguards of our nation. Congrats to cast and crew, and thanks for a trip down memory lane.


Eli Neiburger is Deputy Director of the Ann Arbor District Library and had no business being cast as Ralph Rackstraw in high school. Love levels all ranks, but it does not level them as much as that.


UMGASS presents H.M.S. Pinafore continues April 8, 9, and 10 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. Ticket sales have closed online, but tickets will still be available for purchase at the Box Office.

Review: Molière's medical satire gets lost in a carnival

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

The Imaginary Invalid presented by the U-M SMTD Dept. of Theatre & Drama.

Clockwise from left: Kay Kelley (Toinette), Sam Bell-Gurwitz (Cléante), Savanna Crosby (Angélique) and Jesse Aaronson (Argan) in “The Imaginary Invalid” presented by the U-M SMTD Dept. of Theatre & Drama. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

The University of Michigan production of Molière's The Imaginary Invalid is giddy, bawdy, extremely noisy, and intermittently funny.

Translator James Magruder sought to recreate the theatrical carnival that would have surrounded and interrupted Molière's play when it was first produced in 1673, but in the process Molière's satire takes a back seat and a beating. Director Daniel Cantor takes Magruder's ideas and adds on some of his own. Molière is a mix of pratfalls and comic repartee but the physical action here is often aimless and drags on and the verbal wit is often lost in the noise.

The production seems less like a carnival than a mishmash of Ionesco and Beckett, fart jokes raised to art by Aristophanes and beloved by 12-year-olds everywhere, English music hall and French chanteuses and even a Saturday Night Live skit.

The set design by Vincent Mountain seems to borrow a bit from Chaplin's factory scene in Modern Times or maybe from Fritz Lang's Metropolis as a way to emphasize constant motion, and every once in a while explodes in bubbles. The costumes are not time specific and range from Molière's day to the early 20th Century. The Entr'acte Company wear form fitting suits that would work just as well in a Star Trek play.

The high point of the production is one of the interludes developed by Cantor and the company. The comedy here is quick-footed, makes good use of modern day references, and cheerfully involves the audience. A talented actor named Caleb Foote delivers the goods, dressed as part clown, part busker serenading his beloved. Foote knows how to grab an audience and hold them for dear life. He makes the best of the free form material with a good singing voice and lively banter.

The cast of the central play is fine. Jesse Aaronson gets to ham it up as Argan, the titled imaginary invalid. He moans, groans, and makes body noises as an insufferable hypochondriac. Argan does battle with his impertinent servant Toinette, played with proper spunk and fire by Kay Kelley. Savannah Crosby plays Argan's older daughter, whom he tries to marry off to a doctor's son so he can be under constant care. She plays the daughter as a pretty 19th Century melodrama maid with a bit of a twinkle.

Also notable are Delaney Moro as Argan's second wife, who plots to take his fortune and sneers appropriately; Brendan Alpiner as the unappealing suitor who reels out memorized spiels of twisted flattery; and Anna Markowitz as the younger daughter, who jostles amusingly with her father, verbally and physically.

But the acrobatics, anachronisms, noise, and busyness drown out the satire that still has some power in our times of medical disasters and cure all fads. A last bit of SNL comedy in the finale makes reference to the presidential campaign at a time when that campaign has turned into dangerous high comedy itself.


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.


The Imaginary Invalid continues April 2, 8, and 9 at 8 pm, April 3 and 10 at 2 pm, and April 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the UM North Campus. Tickets are available 9 am to 5 pm at the League Ticket Office within the Michigan League. Order by phone at (734)764-2538.

Preview: Threads All Arts Festival - April 1-2

The first Threads Festival looms.

The first Threads Festival looms.

The Threads All Arts Festival is a new cross-disciplinary arts festival that’ll take place in the Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor on April 1-2, 2016. It’s two days packed with music, dance, poetry, film, theater, and visual art, and the two-day pass to the festival costs $5.

The festival came together after six students at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance thought up the idea, and then U-M’s EXCEL program funded the project.

Launched in September 2015, EXCEL stands for Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Career Empowerment. Jonathan Kuuskoski, Assistant Director of Entrepreneurship and Career Services at U-M SMTD, says that the goal of the program is to catalyze success for all of U-M SMTD students and alumni through curricular and co-curricular programming and ongoing mentorship. The Threads festival is one of twelve projects funded by the Performing Arts EXCELerator program.

Kuuskoski says he’s proud of the work that the Threads team has done so far. He says the project was selected and funded at the highest level because it is “a very audacious idea, but one that seemed to be rooted in a very present community need.”

I met Meri Bobber, one of the students on the Threads team, through my work as the manager of digital media at the University Musical Society - you'll catch several UMS Artists in Residence participating in the festival.

Through Bobber, I connected with the full Threads team (Nicole Patrick, Meri Bobber, Sam Schaefer, Peter Littlejohn, Lang DeLancey, and Karen Toomasian) to chat about what’s exciting about the project and what we can expect in the future.

Q: How did the festival first come together?
A: Sam and Nicole were sitting together dreaming of attending the Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin. They realized that if they were dreaming this hard about attending, they should also probably put together their own festival. At first it was a joke, but then they won a grant. The festival had to happen.

Sam and Nicole quickly realized the festival was in no way possible with just the two of them, and they reached out to four people that seemed to fill every role possible. This team has been digging deep to put together the Threads Festival. We have all helped each other develop ideas, compromise on our way-too-ridiculous ambitions, and organize an event that represents the amazing, unique town that is Ann Arbor.

Q: You talk about how it’s important to you that both students and Ann Arbor community participate. Why is this important to you?
A: The purpose of all of our work is to make something great for Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor, in its awesome uniqueness, is not JUST a college town and not JUST a little city. Its special blend of communities, artistic and otherwise, is what makes it different from any other place in the world. To celebrate the city’s whole artistic community through this festival, we strive to bring students and non-students together.

Q: What are you most looking forward to at the festival?
A: WE CAN HARDLY WAIT FOR ALL OF IT. We are looking forward to seeing all of the tiny pieces that we have thought about as independent or abstract come together into one coherent thing. We can't wait to feel the sense of unity and action that we hope this festival will create. We’ll consider this year a success if people walk out smiling, or rather, thinking. We're such dorks about everything...we were stoked to order porta-potties. It's just amazing. All of it.

Q: You’re aiming to make this an annual festival. That’s an ambitious goal. What do you hope for the festival in the coming years?
A: We want Threads to help expose budding artists in this area. They are working their butts off, but in a town where there are (thankfully) a ton of live performances, many don’t have a large turnout. Simply put, we want people to look forward to this festival as a way to discover artists, so that they can look for these artists around town and see/hear/interact with them beyond just this one day.

We would also love to find a way for the festival to feature a larger outdoor presence in the future. We want guests to be able to leave behind the distractions of daily life, and experience a multi-stage festival event for a few days in an open and peaceful outdoor environment where the music and the river, or wind, or even the sound of crickets can exist in a way that allows a unique experience to emerge.

We want this festival to find longevity far beyond this season so that there is just one more GREAT thing about Ann Arbor.


Anna Prushinskaya is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


The Threads All Arts Festival is takes place in the Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor on April 1-2, 2016.

Preview: The University Opera Theatre presents Così Fan Tutte

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

The cast of University Opera Theatre's Così Fan Tutte.

If you're a fan, get your tutte out to see Così Fan Tutte.

A wager that women can’t be faithful and a bold experiment (with elaborate disguises to prove that point) form the plot foundations of Mozart’s famous comic opera Così Fan Tutte, to be performed by University Opera Theatre accompanied by the University Philharmonia Orchestra.

Deemed scandalous on its premiere, the opera had a troubled production history. Commissioned for the 1789-90 season, Così Fan Tutte received only five performances before the 1790 death of Emperor Joseph II. The new emperor did not hold the same cultural views as his predecessor and the new comic opera received only five more performances. It is rumored that Mozart, who died the following year, never even received full payment for his authorship.

Today’s audiences find this opera comical, yet touching. The complex plot (featuring mixed identities, declarations of love, and fiancée-swapping as two young men don disguises to woo their own girlfriends) is no longer scandalous but extremely amusing. The magnificent score includes such beautiful arias as “Come scoglio,” “Smanie implacabili,” and “Per pieta.”

Directed by Kay Walker Castaldo and conducted by Kathleen Kelly, the U-M production will be sung in Italian with projected English translations.


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


Performances run from Thursday, March 24 to Sunday, March 27 at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N University Ave, Ann Arbor. For tickets, visit http://tickets.music.umich.edu or call the Michigan League at (734) 764-2538.

Preview: Rise Up Cabaret, Neighborhood Theatre Group

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Neighborhood Theatre Group rises to the occasion with their premiere show.

Neighborhood Theatre Group rises to the occasion with their premiere show.

There's a brand-new theatre group in the area. Founded by Kristin Anne Danko and Aaron Dean, who recently relocated to the area from Chicago’s experimental theatre scene, Neighborhood Theatre Group is based on the belief that theatre can bring individuals together.

The company, based in Ypsilanti, intends to cultivate a welcoming and collaborative environment for local theatre artists and has assembled a talented group of singers and performers for their March production, Rise Up Cabaret. Featuring songs of many different genres and styles all centered on the theme of rising up, this musical evening shines a bright, positive light on current, difficult, and important social issues.

Directed by Kristin Anne Danko, Rise Up Cabaret features Nick Brown, David Galido, Eric Hohnke, Emily Rogers, Mary Rumman, Angela Tomaszycki, Craig VanKempen, and Kelly Rose Voigt, with Tom Hett on piano.

Neighborhood Theatre Group has also partnered with Ypsilanti’s Ozone House for this production, and representatives from the organization will attend each performance with information on Ozone House and its mission.

So, why not try something new? Neighborhood Theatre Group promises a memorable musical evening filled with uplifting songs. Local audiences can also look forward to future Neighborhood Theatre Group productions including original works, sketch shows, cabarets, and self-produced videos.


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


Rise Up Cabaret runs from Thursday March 24th through Saturday March 26th at Dreamland Theater, 26 N. Washington St. in Downtown Ypsilanti. All shows are at 8 pm. To reserve seats, or for more information, email neighborhoodtheatregroup@gmail.com.