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.
“Tap Your Troubles Away” isn’t one of the songs featured in the screwball musical comedy Anything Goes, but it’s nonetheless what popped into my head upon leaving Dexter’s Encore Theatre on Sunday.
Why? Because this silly confection of a Depression Era, vaudeville-infused musical, jam-packed with wordplay and witty Cole Porter tunes, offers a pleasurable, two and a half hour escape from our increasingly stressful world.
Originally staged in 1934, with a new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman (original book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse), Anything Goes tells the story of Wall Street broker and ladies’ man Billy Crocker (Sebastian Gerstner), who stows away on his boss’ cruise liner upon spotting the woman he truly loves, heiress Hope Harcourt (Emily Hadick), on board with her British fiancee, Lord Evelyn Oakley (David Moan). Hope’s family suffered great losses during the Crash of ’29, so her engagement is more pragmatic than romantic, and her heart secretly belongs to Billy. Meanwhile, brassy nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Olivia Hernandez) only has eyes for Billy, too, but over time, an unlikely friendship grows between her and Oakley.
Oh, and there’s a scheming, wisecracking gangster-in-hiding (Moonface Martin, played by Dan Morrison) and his moll (Erma, played by Elizabeth Jaffe) because isn’t there always? Some featured Porter songs in the show (besides the title number) include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”
The latter number is one of the production’s best and most extensive showcases for Rachel Constantino’s joyous choreography, the other being the first act's energizing closer, “Anything Goes” -- which, amazingly, winks at one of the biggest dance men of the show’s era, Busby Berkeley, in its patterns and formations, despite the Encore’s relatively tight space limitations.
But the big, splashy, “tap-gasm” (my term) numbers weren’t the production’s only highlights. “The Gypsy in Me” comes off as both hilarious and sexy, with Moan and Hernandez turning up the fizzy flirtation factor through Constantino’s cheekily sensual choreography; “Buddie, Beware” has Jaffe literally rolling in men; and in “Friendship,” Hernandez and Morrison break the fourth wall by acknowledging that they can’t keep musical director Tyler Driskill vamping forever while they neurotically commiserate and kvetch about various things.
These moments epitomize the Encore production’s polished, sophisticated breeziness, as established by director Thalia Schramm, who keeps the pace clicking without ever making the scenes feel rushed. Plus, Schramm subtly, wisely downplays the culturally cringey parts of the show -- namely the often-exaggerated depiction of a reformed Chinese gambler -- while still honoring the script. Now, how one man’s outfit comes to disguise two characters, well, that’s the kind of musical theater math you have to just roll with.
Driskill’s seven-person orchestra delivers Porter’s glamorous score with panache, and the ensemble sounds divine. Tyler Chinn’s lighting design helps bring out the romance and heat of certain numbers, while Kristen Gribbin’s versatile sets, paired with Anne Donevan’s props, help to visually transport us to the SS American while also allowing for seamless, quick transitions. Finally, Sharon Larkey Urick’s handsome costumes manage to be bewitchingly sexy without being tacky, with Hernandez sporting the production’s most gorgeous gowns.
But Urick’s dresses are only one reason it’s hard to pull your eyes from Hernandez whenever she’s on stage. The charismatic actress commands the stage with a winning charm, and her knockout vocals have an effortlessness that’s only achieved through hard work and discipline. Gerstner is a delightful, graceful, and appealing leading man, and Morrisson and Jaffe have a ball with their deliciously cartoonish supporting roles. One of the most impressive leaps, though, is achieved by Moan, who takes the stuffy straight man role and renders it hysterical by seizing upon every opportunity -- like Oakley’s fascination with American colloquialisms, for instance, or his penchant for dancing around in a short robe and sock garters (courtesy of Urick) -- to wring humor from the character, and thus make Oakley more interesting.
Of course, there’s no mistaking that Anything Goes is a show built around the music, not the other way around; and with its absurd plot, cornball humor, and broad characters, the musical is more about making audiences feel good for a couple of hours than it is about making them feel much of anything else.
But these days, I’ll happily take that.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
"Anything Goes" runs through Dec. 23 at The Encore Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Showtimes: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Visit theencoretheatre.org for tickets and more info.
High school is a tough time in anyone’s life. It’s a time when we invent ourselves several times over and never get it quite right. Throw some deep racial tension into the mix and things can become explosive.
In 2006, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, La., was beaten by six black students. The beating followed a racially charged week. A new black student at the high school dared to sit under a shade tree unofficially reserved for whites only. The next day, three nooses were hung from the tree. More incidents followed, including a damaging fire at the school. The six students were arrested and initially charged with attempted second-degree murder, later reduced to aggravated battery. The events led to a protest against what some thought were excessive and discriminatory treatment of the six students.
Playwright Dominique Morisseau uses these events for Blood at the Root, a fictional story that explores how the young students, black and white, react to these events and how they struggle to define themselves beyond the broad stereotypes they’ve been assigned. The play deals with the protests, but Morisseau, who is black, is more interested in the emotional impact of these events on young adults trying to find themselves.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
In 2014 Stori Ayers was a graduate student in acting at Penn State University. She had the rare opportunity to be the first actress to play a key role in Dominique Morisseau’s Blood at the Root, which had been commissioned by the university. She and other cast members worked with the author to develop the play
After performances at Penn State, she continued to perform the role of Raylynn in a touring production across the United States and internationally.
Ayers, who now teaches at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, will direct a U-M production of the provocative play, Nov. 16-20 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.
Hee-haw! Rural comedy is still alive, kicking, and knee slapping in the PTD production of Farce of Nature.
In a note to the audience, directors Janet Rich and Dennis Platte write, “We wish for you to take time to set aside the troubles of the world, to smile, and to be silly.”
The directors keep the silliness moving along at a quick pace and have encouraged the cast to bring on the ham.
Nearly every play that is performed for an audience is a culmination of many people’s collective time and effort. A play is often a culmination of countless hours of rehearsals; of actors having learned the basics of their blocking and memorizing their lines, only to then attempt the feat of embodying becoming other people; of a director grappling with ideas and how to bring their artistic vision to a stage.
“Resist” is not only a rallying cry of our political times; it was the seed of Ann Arbor-based playwright David Wells (“Irrational,” “Brill”) latest world premiere play at Theatre Nova.
Resisting, which runs Oct. 27-Nov. 19, grew out of a news story Wells read about what’s called “broken windows policing.” Born in New York City in the ‘90s, “It’s essentially a zero-tolerance approach, that was combined with ‘stop and frisk,’” said Wells. “(Broken Windows) started with a scholarly paper that suggested that ... if one window in a building is broken, and it’s not fixed immediately, all of them will be broken. ... So the police were compelled to start ticketing or arresting people for every little infraction, no matter how small -- whether it’s jumping a turnstile, or jaywalking, or spitting in public. This led to a more antagonistic relationship between the police and the citizens they were supposed to serve. And these policies also only seemed to be applied in low-income neighborhoods.”
Redbud Productions shows are truly a family affair. My interview with Loretta Grimes -- who is directing Nice Girl at Kerrytown Concert House, Oct. 26-28 -- along with her husband and Redbud collaborator, Tim Grimes, was one of the warmest interviews I've conducted. Like the archetype of a loving married couple, Loretta and Tim -- who is the Events Manager at AADL -- finished many of each other's sentences during out chat in their rehearsal space, which is the basement of their home. It has been converted into an acting space complete with spike tape (to signify where the boundaries of the stage are), the set for their new show, and framed posters from their 19 years of previous productions.
The 130 miles of the Huron River have inspired everyone from poets and writers to biological researchers and naturalists. Now, it’s serving as inspiration for The River in Our City, the River in Our Veins, a processional performance at 12 noon on Friday, Oct. 27, in celebration of the University of Michigan’s bicentennial.
“Part of it was wanting to find something that impacts everybody on campus,” said Christianne Myers, associate professor of theater (costume design) and head of design and production at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. She’s also one of the event’s organizers. “Whether it’s actually something people are studying or doing research on, or if its just students riding inner tubes. It can be a lot of things to a lot of different people."
When the musical Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966, memories of World War II and revelations about Nazi concentration camps were still fresh for the majority of Americans. The story of Weimar Germany’s plunge into nihilism and the rise of the Nazi Third Reich resonated with audiences as a reminder of how insidious evil can be.
Kat Walsh and Jennifer Goltz-Taylor hope their production of Cabaret for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is equally relevant for our troubled times.
“When Jennifer and I first proposed the show, we were looking at how polarized people are around a number of issues in our country and around the world,” said Walsh, the show’s director. “There’s a feeling of being unsettled on all sides of the political world. When we looked at the cabaret world in the 1930s, there was that same feeling of unsettledness. David Mamet said we’re here to engage with our audience and create a community, to ask what in the hell is going on it this world.”