The Cost of Joy: "A New Brain" is odd, lovable, and filled with ear candy

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

A New Brain

“Sometimes joy has a terrible cost" is a quintessential lyric in William Finn’s autobiographical musical, A New Brain.

And in the production staged this past weekend at the Arthur Miller Theater by the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre, creatively blocked composer Gordon Michael Schwinn (Jack Mastrianni) gets an existential jolt of electricity by way of an unexpected, scary brush with death.

For just as Gordon struggles mightily to write a song for a children’s television show frog named Mr. Bungee (Matthew Sanguine), he meets up with his agent and best friend Rhoda (Brianna Stoute) for lunch and suddenly loses consciousness. After various tests, a hilariously blowhard doctor (Hugh Entrekin) tells Gordon he needs a craniotomy, and this scary news sends Gordon, his mother Mimi (Madeline Eaton), and his lover Roger (Luke Bove) into an emotional tailspin.

While this may not sound upbeat and lighthearted, A New Brain -- which premiered Off-Broadway in 1998, with music and lyrics by Finn, and a book by Finn and James Lapine -- is a kind of odd, lovable, small, shaggy dog of a musical. Because the primary narrative’s series of events is markedly compact (Gordon’s collapse, diagnosis, surgery, and outcome), the 90-minute show opens its doors with some quirky turns, providing space for fanciful character tangents (like “nice nurse” Richard’s lament, “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat”), minor characters (a homeless woman), and frog-haunted flights of hallucination and memory (“And They’re Off,” which fills in the blanks on why Gordon’s father isn’t part of the picture).

Inspired by Finn’s own arteriovenous malformation diagnosis, in the months following his Tony Award-winning success with FalsettosA New Brain is a flawed but endearing confection. For every seeming misstep -- to name one, the homeless character never wholly justifies her sizable footprint within the show (even though Daelynn Jorif’s vocals wowed me) -- there are several brilliant little strokes of wit, surprise, and warmth.

Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Yeomen of the Guard" casts a darker shadow for light comic opera

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

UMGASS's Yeoman of the Guard

Photo courtesy of UMGASS.

Comic operas usually live up their genre name: lively songs, light humor, and endings filled with satisfied characters.

For the most part, Gilbert and Sullivan's twist on the style, Savoy operas, are no exception. But their The Yeomen of the Guard mixes playful puns and broken hearts, making for an emotionally complicated environment that is a distinct change from standard comic-opera fare.

The play debuted in London on Oct. 3, 1888, at the 1,200-seat Savoy Theatre, which was built to showcase Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas. The University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society (UMGASS) is staging its take on The Yeomen of the Guard at the 600-seat Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, December 5-8, which will give attendees a more intimate look at a play Sullivan described in his diary as, "Pretty story, no topsy turvydom, very human, & funny also."

U-M brings diversity to Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Grapes of Wrath book cover

Excerpt of the book cover for the first edition of The Grapes of Wrath, 1939.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a great American classic.

It is set in a specific time, the Great Depression of the 1930s; specific places, the Dust Bowl ravaged southwest and the fertile promised land of California; and a specific group of people, the migrant Joad family of Oklahoma, one of many families looked down upon as ignorant Okies, traveling with hope for a better life. Yet the story continues to resonate as migrants make their way from Central America to the United States border and from Syria and North Africa to the shores of Europe in search of justice, peace and a chance for that better life. 

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama is presenting a production of Frank Galati’s critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel.

“It seemed timely, relevant, a great American tragedy, a great novel,” said production director Gillian Eaton, an award-winning actress, director, and U-M faculty member.

Encore Theatre ably explores "The Secret Garden" despite the play's storytelling woes

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Encore Theatre's poster for The Secret Garden

Generally, when we’re suffering and in pain, we know the cause.

But when it comes to identifying what will heal us -- let alone knowing whether healing is even possible -- that’s another matter entirely.

This all-too-human struggle makes up the core of the 1991 stage musical adaptation of The Secret Garden -- book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon -- on stage at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

Inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic 1911 children’s novel, the story begins -- rather confusingly, to be honest -- with a young British girl, Mary Lennox (Jojo Engelbert), surviving a cholera epidemic that leaves her an orphan in India. She’s dispatched to the country home of her Uncle Archibald (Jay Montgomery), but he doesn’t bother to greet her, so steeped is he in his own grief for his deceased wife, Lily (Sarah B. Stevens). 

Mary’s only company at first is a maid named Martha (Dawn Purcell), but then Mary befriends Martha’s nature-loving brother, Dickon (Tyler J. Messinger), who feeds Mary’s curiosity about the walled-off, locked-up secret garden that was once loved and tended by Lily. Plus, Mary soon stumbles upon another young resident of the house: sickly, bedridden Colin (Caden Martel), who fears that his father, Archibald, hates him because his birth caused Lily’s death.

If this all sounds pretty dark and gloomy, well, it is.

Theatre Nova fund-raiser showcases a stripped-down version of Sondheim’s "Follies"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Theatre Nova's Follies

Photos by Sean Carter Photography

Theatre Nova has chosen, appropriately, a showbiz musical as a fund-raiser for the innovative professional theater that specializes in new plays and new playwrights.

This play isn’t new nor are the writers, but the show-business environment and its emotional ups and downs are perfect for reminding theater-goers why live theater matters. Follies, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman, is a tip of the hat to obsessions, from being on stage to matters of the heart.

Nova recently received a matching grant of $15,000 from the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. The two-weekend limited run of Follies is one of several fund-raisers to meet the match. Nova is presenting a stripped-down, concert version of the musical that puts the spotlight on the songs and keeps the focus on the central story of two former showgirls and their unhappy marriages. Actors double up on some roles and side plots are eliminated. 

The story concerns a reunion of Weismann Follies showgirls (a fictional Ziegfeld). They gather together in an old Broadway theater in 1971, 30 years since they last performed just before the U.S. entry into World War II.

Joseph Zettelmaier's "Dr. Seward’s Dracula" is a creepy, clever prequel to Bram Stokers' vampire legend

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Dr. Seward's Dracula

Allyson Miko as the Emily the ghost and Jeffrey Shawn Miller as the unstable Dr. Seward in The Penny Seats Theatre Company's production of Dr. Seward's Dracula.

Near the end of Joseph Zettelmaier’s play Dr. Seward’s Dracula -- now being staged by The Penny Seats Theatre Company, at Ann Arbor’s Stone Chalet Inn -- a character observes, “People need their monsters.”

So it seems. For it’s far more comforting and palatable to believe that humans like ourselves simply aren’t capable of committing the very worst acts of violence and depravity.

But we are, of course. And this unnerving truth is precisely what drives Zettelmaier’s unconventional take on the Dracula story.

The atmospheric dance troupe Sankai Juku transfixed the Power Center with haunting movement

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Sankai Juku performing Meguri

There’s an image I’ve been having a hard time getting out of my head ever since the performance of Sankai Juku’s Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land at the Power Center last weekend:

Four dancers in an eerie semi-darkness -- bald, torsos nude, bodies covered in white dust -- stand together in a circle. They stay fixed to the floor, seemingly rooted to the spot, as their bodies turn around in a unified, slow-motion gesture. Their feet rotate in place as their limbs twist together, until legs spiral around one another and the spine and neck swivel to bring the ghostly visages directly before the audience. On the faces, there is an open-mouthed image of silent, inexpressible anguish, a sort of inaudible scream whose riveting force stops your breath. For a moment, before the contorted and gnarled bodies reverse direction and rotate back, you have unshakable certainty that this is the face of a body in pain.

It’s haunting.

Then the moment passes and the spell dissipates.

There’s no pain here, not really, just illusion and mastery.

This kind of arresting image isn’t uncommon for Sankai Juku, a Paris-based troupe that practices a Japanese dance form known as butoh, an avant-garde genre that arose in the 1960s and is recognizable by its characteristic use of white body powder and shaved heads.

Michigan Made: Theatre Nova’s Playwrights Festival puts the spotlight on new works for the stage

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Theatre Nova's yellow barn building

Theatre Nova's yellow-barn home. Photo courtesy of Theatre Nova.

Part two of Theatre Nova’s semi-annual Michigan Playwrights Festival has an added evening that gives more opportunities to shine the spotlight on new playwrights. In addition to staged readings of four full length plays, the festival will set aside an evening for the presentation of six 10-minute plays.

The Michigan Playwrights Festival is in its fifth season, part of Theatre Nova’s focus on new plays and playwrights. Twice a year, a committee selects four plays for presentations in staged readings. The festival will present a play each night Oct. 24-27. The Evening of 10-Minute Plays will be presented Oct. 23.

The four plays selected for the regular festival are The Lion’s Share by Catherine Zudak, Dear Camp by Lisa MacDonald, Silo Tree by Sam Collier, and Blight by R.D. Wakeman.

Playwright Sarah Elisabeth Brown is coordinating the evening of 10-minute plays for Theatre Nova.

“The evening is new to the festival and comes out of a group I started in conjunction with Theatre Nova about a year ago called the Nova Lab, which is designed as a resource to playwrights of all levels who would like to develop their craft,” Brown said in an email interview. “Our signature event is called Prompts for Playwrights and we meet on Sunday evenings when the theater is dark.”

Locked-Up With Laughter: A2 Civic Theatre’s "My Three Angels" is a sharp family comedy

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

My Three Angels

L-R: Dillon Roseen, Theo Polley, Jim Sullivan, and Ellen Finch in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's My Three Angels. Photo by Lisa Gavan | Gavan Photo.

When Barbara Mackey King proposed directing My Three Angels for this season at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, she had two goals in mind. One was for actors and the other for audiences.

“I was in another play at Civic Theatre and everyone was talking about how there weren’t a lot of great plays for older actors,” she said. “I thought I can help with that and I remembered My Three Angels, which has some very fine parts for older, experienced actors.”

She was also looking for a play that would appeal to a diverse audience.

“I chose this play because it’s what I would call a good family comedy,” she said. “By that I mean not Leave It to Beaver or something like that, not for tiny kids. But something that the whole family can enjoy. It’s not too salacious or suggestive or anything like that. It’s something you can bring older kids to.”

She said that’s important for the future of live theater.

U-M’s take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Pirates of Penzance" zips along in swashbuckling style

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

U-M's Pirates of Penzance

It is the very model of a modern musical comedy.

The University of Michigan Department of Music’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ever-popular The Pirates of Penzance moves along faster than the celebrated major-general’s patter song. The tiny Lydia Mendelssohn stage is alive with color, movement, and music.

Director Vincent J. Cardinal has chosen the 1980 Joseph Papp New York version of Penzance with more swashbuckling, dancing and some reinterpretation of Sullivan’s music. That production starred Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. U-M’s production is filled to overflowing with musical theater stars of the future.