Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" gets a contemporary update with new music at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Beatrice (Jacquie Jones) and Benedick (Chris Grimm) wield words like swords in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's modern-day, music-filled update of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Beatrice (Jacquie Jones) and Benedick (Chris Grimm) wield words like swords in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's modern-day, music-filled update of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

"Therefore play, music."
—Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing

It’s become customary for directors to find ways to make Shakespeare more accessible.

When director David Widmayer proposed the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing as the play to welcome audiences back to the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, he embraced Benedick’s call for music.

“My original pitch was to replace the violence in the show with the metaphorical violence of a battle of the bands,” he said. 

That proposal was turned down, but music remained a key element for the production, including some cast members creating original compositions for Shakespeare’s verse.

Widmayer has performed in several Shakespeare productions at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. This is his second time directing a Shakespeare play. 

“I was looking for something that basically we could have fun with and get the audience back into the theater,” Widmayer said. 

In Widmayer’s reimagining of Much Ado, musicians and artists go off to war but when they return they lay down their arms to return to the arts. The time is now, but the titles and arrangements of Shakespeare’s world exist in this imaginary version of modern times.

“It’s a place where people can come and perform music and find joy in that art together,” Widmayer said.

Mystery Train: Concordia Theatre takes the audience for a ride on the Orient Express

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

Michele (Chole Haynes), who is standing and dressed in a train conductor's uniform, and Monsieur Bouc (Samuel Botzum), who is dressed in a suit and sitting, enlist the services of detective Hercule Poirot in Concordia Theatre's production of Ken Ludwig’s stage version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

Conductor Michele (Chole Haynes) and Monsieur Bouc (Samuel Botzum) enlist the services of detective Hercule Poirot in Concordia Theatre's production of Ken Ludwig’s stage version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Photo courtesy of Concordia Theatre.

On October 10, the intimate Black Box Theatre at Concordia University was a warehouse full of pianos for a used piano sale. By the end of the month, the 200-seat theater will transport an audience across a winter landscape from Istanbul to central Europe on the legendary Orient Express.

And murder is afoot.

Concordia’s theater department is presenting Ken Ludwig’s stage version of Agatha Christie’s ever-popular Murder on the Orient Express, October 27-30. Hercule Poirot, the eccentric Belgian private detective, will twirl his extravagant mustache and use his gray matter to solve a complex case of murder as the Orient Express makes its way west before being trapped in a blizzard. 

It’s a challenging case for Poirot with so many suspects and it’s a challenge for Concordia with the play's unusual setting, numerous European accents, and a large cast of potential murderers.

But Concordia’s theater director Amanda Williams is happy to accept the challenge of presenting a famous mystery and giving a tip of the hat to the woman who transformed the mystery genre, Agatha Christie.

"Mummy" Issues: The Penny Seats Theatre Company's world premiere of "The Mummy Queen" wraps Ann Arbor in a spooky London tale

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Mummy Queen at The Penny Seats Theatre Company

Sergeant Daw (Tim Pollack), Margaret Trelawny (Allison Megroet), and Malcolm Ross (Jeffrey Miller) try to get to unravel the mystery of The Mummy Queen in The Penny Seats Theatre Company's world premiere of Michael Alan Herman's play. Photo by Josie Eli Herman.

There is a long list of plays and musicals that deal with monsters such as vampires, witches, and Frankenstein. Mummies, however, are scarcely represented on stage.

Michael Alan Herman's The Mummy Queen fills that void, and its world premiere run this month by The Penny Seats Theatre Company is quick, witty, and filled with great storytelling. It's perfect for the Halloween season, but it also tackles the ever-present issue of gender roles, and what (or who) men feel entitled to.

Set in Notting Hill, London, during the 1890s, the show opens with a lengthy monologue from Abel Trelawny—played by the captivating Matthew Cameron—an Egyptologist who has gone on a mission to find the long-lost resting place of Queen Tara. Trelawny tells the epic tale of how he found the queen, brought her back to London, and now has her coffin sitting in his study. While the speech is long, and all told from a past-tense narrative, Cameron does a wonderful job of keeping the audience engaged and wanting more. At the end of his diatribe, he goes to open the coffin and is attacked by an invisible force. He runs off stage, and now we are caught up to speed and in the present day. 

Jeff Daniels' “Pickleball” serves up intense characters and a faulty narrative

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Jonathan West and Kate Thomsen in Pickleball at The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Jonathan West and Kate Thomsen star in The Purple Rose Theatre Company's production of Jeff Daniels' Pickleball. Photo courtesy of The Purple Rose Theatre Company.

When I was 8, I performed at a dance recital with my tap classmates. As the girls around me on stage made a few mistakes, I glared at them (according to my amused parents), furious that they were ruining my moment.

This oft-repeated family story came back to me while watching Jeff Daniels’ Pickleball, now having its world premiere at The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.

Why?

Because the five absurdly intense, competitive adult characters in the play ultimately seemed like variations of my 8-year-old self, which is a bit problematic. But we’ll get to that shortly.

"North Country" Fare: The 40th-anniversary edition of Jay Stielstra's folk opera sails into The Ark

MUSIC THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Rochelle Clark and Brad Phillips as the young couple Sari and Michael talk things over in front of David Menefee, who plays Old Man, as they rehearse for the 40th-anniversary production of Jay Stielstra's North Country Opera.

Rochelle Clark and Brad Phillips as the young couple Sari and Michael talk things over in front of David Menefee, who plays Old Man, during rehearsals for the 40th-anniversary production of Jay Stielstra's North Country Opera. Photo courtesy of North Country Opera.

Forty years ago, Jay Stielstra was playing his songs to enthusiastic listeners around Ann Arbor, mostly at Mr. Flood’s Party, a bar that once stood on 120 West Liberty. Bouyed by the response to his tunes, the folk singer decided to write some continuity and put them together in a play, North Country Opera

“The main thing that carries it are the songs,” Stielstra says. “I asked other musicians I knew in Ann Arbor if they wanted to be in a play, and they all said yes.”

Stielstra knew one of the founders of the Performance Network, the late David Bernstein, and brought the work to him. “David was very enthusiastic,” Stielstra says, and North Country Opera premiered in 1982 as the fledgling theater's second production.

The play was revived in 1992, 1993, and 2003 in Ann Arbor, and in 2022 it toured Northern Michigan, with the 89-year-old playwright along for the ride. North Country Opera returns to Ann Arbor for one night, October 18, at The Ark

U-M Department of Musical Theatre's "Sophisticated Ladies" is jumping with talent

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The cast of U-M Department of Musical Theatre's "Sophisticated Ladies" gathers on the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre with signs for the Cotton Club, Savoy, and Apollo in Harlem circa the 1930s.

The cast "Sophisticated Ladies" gathers on the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. Photo courtesy of of U-M Department of Musical Theatre.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!

And, man, is it swinging at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre during the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre's sizzling production of Sophisticated Ladies. The musical revue is a tribute to Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington's ever-enduring music and the modern dance styles that it inspired.

Guest directors/choreographers Torya Beard and Ayodele Casel are dancers who realize the immense talent of U-M’s students and provided these future stars with the support and freedom they needed to excel. They also brought in dancer Mercedes Ellington to talk about her art form and to discuss her grandfather Duke and her father, band leader Mercer Ellington. The result is a production of almost nonstop energy, from the orchestra and the large company of dancers to the varied takes by several singers on Ellington’s beloved songs.

Under the musical direction of Maurice Draughn with Tyler Driskill at the piano, the orchestra is always on stage and performs in top form.

Chekhov's "Three Sisters" gets a risqué update in U-M’s "Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Six actors are on a stage in what is made to look like a large living room.

Photo via UMSMTD's Facebook page.

Playwright Halley Feiffer had the clever idea of taking Anton Chekhov’s play Three Sisters and kicking it into the 21st century. 

It’s one of those creations that begins with the question, “What if?” What if Chekhov were writing his play today using raw contemporary language with lots of profanity, slang, catchphrases, snarky attitudes, and even a few funny jokes backed by some hot early 2000s music?

The result is Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow being presented at the University of Michigan’s Arthur Miller Theatre. Director Ryan Dobrin takes the idea a bit further in his production at the university by setting Chekhov’s characters “in a more diverse context,” according to a program note. The result is a comic mashup that draws, again according to the program notes, on the affectations of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians as well as on gender-identity issues.

The playbill also comes with a warning that the play may be “upsetting, offensive, or triggering for some audience members” and advises caution. Some of those who might respond that way are fans of Chekhov who might not appreciate what Feiffer has done to his play.

Encore Musical Theatre’s Fats Waller tribute "Ain’t Misbehavin'" struts and swaggers

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore, Ain't Misbehavin'

Arielle Crosby sings as castmates Tammie Harris and Danté J. L. Murray listen in the background during Encore Theatre's production of Ain't Misbehavin'. Photo by John White.

Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was only 39 years old when he died of pneumonia but in that short life the effervescent showman, composer, singer, master pianist, and amiable comic packed in a lot of life.

The Broadway hit Ain’t Misbehavin’, conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horowitz, is not a musical biography of Waller but rather an infectious presentation of his music and a rollicking recreation of the pianist's uptown swing.

The Encore Musical Theatre Company is taking its audience back to a swank Harlem club to experience that other time and place. Director and choreographer Gerry McIntyre presents a polished, sassy, and moving production that swings from happy-go-lucky and downright sexy to a bit more reflective tone. That arc gives a portrait of Waller that explains his life more than a lecture ever could.

The musical "Hands on a Hardbody" explores class empathy, big personalities, and personal connections

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Actors Alexander Hernandez and Leah Gittlen stand side by side with one hand each placed on a red truck inin Penny Seat Theatre's production of Hards on a Hardbody

Alexander Hernandez as Jesus and Leah Gittlen as Heather in Penny Seats Theatre's production of Hands on a Hardbody. Photo courtesy of Penny Seats Theatre.

Some narrative setups just prove too irresistible to pass up.

In the case of the musical Hands on a Hardbodya group of down-on-their-luck Texans gather at a car dealership for the chance to win a new red Nissan pickup truck. To win, they must stand for days on end with one hand touching the vehicle at all times, and they each have their own motivations for committing to this grueling exercise—which means, of course, everyone has a unique story to tell.

Think of it as A Chorus Line for economically struggling Southerners.

This boiled-down assessment, as it happens, additionally hints at some of the inherent challenges of the show: how to toe the line delicately between caricatures and big personalities; between blue state talking points and red state realities; and between appropriation and a heart’s-in-the-right-place effort at inclusion.

But the play vacillates in its ability to pull off this delicate balance, and its structure makes the musical a series of character sketches more than a cohesive dramatic story arc with high stakes. 

Yes, each person has his/her reasons for wanting the truck so badly, but in the end, we know everyone will probably be OK if they lose this contest, too.

Inspired by a 1997 documentary of the same name, and now being staged by Penny Seats Theatre in Ann Arbor's Burns Park, the two-and-a-half-hour Hands on a Hardbody premiered on Broadway in 2013 and features a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) and music by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green.

Emilio Rodriguez asks who gets to decide what’s offensive in his play "God Kinda Looks Like Tupac"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

A photo of Emilio Rodriguez, author of the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac.

Emilio Rodriguez, author of the play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac. Photo via his Facebook page.

NOTE: "God Kinda Looks Like Tupac" has been pushed back from its original opening date to August 5 due to illness.

Emilio Rodriguez, whose play God Kinda Looks Like Tupac opens at Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova on July 29 August 5, says his theater career started early.

Very early.

Donning his mother’s high heels and appropriating her broom and a funnel, he performed “one-kid adaptations of The Wizard of Oz” in the family’s living room.

Perhaps one reason why a movie with the famous line "There's no place like home" resonated with Rodriguez is that he is a self-described “military brat” who grew up on the move. Rodriguez says he didn’t have a sense of hometown until he moved to Detroit in 2012 to teach high school English and drama for AmeriCorps. One thing that informs all his work, he says, is “a loose sense of the idea of home. The plays are not necessarily set in someone’s home [but ask] … how do people make a sense of home?”

When Rodriguez began teaching, he saw the classroom as “an extension of home. … In the younger grade levels, kids spend more time at school than with their families.” He also found that friendships with colleagues gave him a sense of connection, of a mock family, a home. 

Rodriguez set God Kinda Looks Like Tupac in a Detroit high school, where a white art teacher in the mostly Black school has been targeted as insensitive. A Latino teacher offers a suggestion to the art teacher that might help him keep his job: It’s Black History month, she tells him, and there’s a competition; if a student he enters can paint something in celebration of the month and win, chances are good he will be named Teacher of the Year.

And who would fire Teacher of the Year?