Encore Theatre shakes it up with “The Million Dollar Quartet”


Encore Theatre's Million Dollar Quartet

The Million Dollar Quartet +1 rocks its way through the Encore Theatre. Photo by Michele Anliker.

Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on at the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter as the way-back machine takes us to Dec. 4, 1956, when Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash came together for the first and last time as a quartet.

The Colin Escott-Floyd Mutrux jukebox musical The Million Dollar Quartet is less a historically accurate presentation of that day than an all out celebration of these four seminal figures in the history of rock 'n' roll and Sam Philips, owner of Memphis’ Sun Records and their mentor, producer and father figure (though only a few years older).

Purple Rose Theatre's "Flint" is intensely, painfully real



Olivia (Casaundra Freeman) comforts her husband, Mitchell, affectingly portrayed by Lynch R. Travis. Photos by Sean Carter Photography.

Titling a play Flint may seem somewhat presumptuous after all that's gone down in the beleaguered city in recent years. How could one summarize the city's water crisis and the devastation it's caused Flint residents in an 80-minute show? But playwright Jeff Daniels rises to the challenge impressively with his new show, currently making a world-premiere run through March 10 at his Purple Rose Theatre Company (PRTC).

Daniels' wisest decision -- and the main reason the show works as well as it does -- is to go very, very small and very, very personal in approaching an issue that has rocked thousands of peoples' lives. Flint follows two couples, one white and one black, in the latter couple's kitchen as they laugh, drink, fight, and contemplate bleak futures, all in a mostly uninterrupted stretch of real time.

Jillian Walker's "Speculative Histories" asked participants to look outside their points of view


Jillian Walker

“What does it mean to see?” --Jillian Walker

Speculative Histories was a Dr. Martin Luther King Day Jr. event sponsored by University Musical Society as part of its No Safety Net festival. Hosted at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch, award-winning playwright and UMS Research Residency artist Jillian Walker led a workshop that invited participants to engage with history in a way that may be new to them.

UMS's "No Safety Net" festival digs into deep issues through play(s)


UMS's Underground Railroad Game. Photo by Ben Arons.

Underground Railroad Game is one of four provacative plays presented in the No Safety Net festival. Photo by Ben Arons.

The three-week-long theater festival No Safety Net presented by the University Musical Society (UMS) will showcase four productions that focus on important and divisive social issues in modern society, from slavery and terrorism to transgender identity, radical wellness, and healing.

So, what do the four pieces in No Safety Net have in common?

Braids of Truth: Urban Bush Women's "Hair and Other Stories"



Urban Bush Women by Hayim Heron
It's never about what it's about: Urban Bush Women used talk of black hairstyles to get at deeper truths. Photo by Hayim Heron.

On Friday, Jan. 12, the Brooklyn-based dance company Urban Bush Women performed Hair and Other Stories at the Power Center courtesy of University Musical Society. The show uses black women’s relationship to their hair to explore larger truths about the society we live in. I am neither particularly fluent in the world of dance performance, nor am I deeply entrenched in the dance world. I am most accurately described as an enthusiastically casual appreciator.

I am, however, well versed in black hair culture. 

This is probably why I should have known that the audience would be expected somehow to participate in the experience. 

Black hair is a contact sport. 

Pith Helmets & Pithy Plays: A2 Civic Theatre's “The Explorer's Club"


Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's The Explorer's Club

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's The Explorer's Club is set in a long-ago time but relevant to today. Photo by Lisa Gavan | Gavan Photo.

Once you learn that someone has an “adventure tiki room” in his own home -- well, let’s just say it’s not so surprising to learn this same person was inspired to direct an Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of Nell Benjamin’s comedy The Explorers Club.

“(My adventure tiki room) is very empty right now,” said Brodie Brockie. “Pretty much everything is on the stage.”

The Arthur Miller Theatre’s stage, to be exact, where this weekend audiences will be transported to an exotic gathering spot for male adventurers in 1879 London. The Explorers Club, which had its Off-Broadway premiere in 2013, tells the story of what happens when a gutsy female explorer, Phyllida Spotte-Hume, crashes the club, with a non-English-speaking tribesman from a “lost city” in tow.

A Women's College? Maddest Folly Going!


Dress Rehearsal photo from UMGASS's production of Princess Ida

Princess Ida and the Undergraduates of Castle Adamant. Photo courtesy of UMGASS.

The University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society (UMGASS) is one of campus's most venerable and long-lived community arts organizations, and they can be counted on to produce two excellent classic operettas each year. This term, they've taken on Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant; not one of Gilbert & Sullivan's most popular works, but just as delightful and witty as ever.

Directed by David Andrews, a cast of UMGASS regulars and some campus rising stars come together this weekend to stage this story of betrothal, education, evolution, the military, tenure, cross-dressing, and generally singing "hoity-toity" a lot.

David Andrews chooses a setting mostly contemporary to the 1884 debut of Princess Ida and sticks pretty close to the script; there was one clearly added throwaway gag that got a big laugh. Whether this was improv or planned, it worked! U-M Freshman Alexandra Kzeski takes the title role, an unusually forthright and strong G&S heroine, who walls off 100 women in Castle Adamant to form a Women's College. Kzeski has the presence and power to pull off this role and shines in every scene. Christopher Kendall (playing one of the great G&S hero names, PRINCE HILARION) takes the male lead once again and continues to deliver; his mugging, lovestruck dopeyness, and powerful voice have become a staple of recent UMGASS productions.

I hope to see him in several more productions before he returns to his native Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwilliantysiliogogogoch in Wales. (Stunt Bios are always appreciated.) Some G&S works are powered by pairs, but Princess Ida is heavy on trios, and the leads are joined by UMGASS regulars from the supporting cast to form some outstanding trios. Kendall is joined by his friends and sidekicks, Patrick Takata as Florian, and Sounak Raj Das as Cyril. These are very funny roles hilariously delivered; Takata, in particular, steals several scenes, and the three of them together just nail the back-to-back trios of the first act. Similarly, Ida's soldierly brothers, Arac, Guron, and Scynthius have some of the funniest moments in the production, and their deadpan, bass delivery, solid slapstick, and perfect dishevelment are a highlight. Guron is played by Stephan Lemmer, and Scynthius by Jeff Spindler, and Natan Zamansky as Arac does an outstanding job with the soldierly disrobing solo "This Helmet, I Suppose." UMGASS's stable of regulars is truly deep, including other wonderful performances from Don Regan and Phillip Rhodes as the warring kings, and lots of familiar faces in the chorus. UMGASS newcomer and U-M Alumna Elizabeth Mitchell as Lady Blanche and BGSU student Amanda Williams as Lady Psyche turn in excellent performances and keep the lady undergraduates in order. So, don't miss this brief chance to see one of Gilbert & Sullivan's most wry but underappreciated works at the Mendelssohn Theatre this weekend; where else can you hear heavenly voices sing that "Man Is Nature's Sole Mistake," and even better, that "Darwinian Man, though well-behaved, at best is only a monkey shaved."

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 Princess Ida, or, Castle Adamant, continues December 8, 9, and 10 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. Tickets are available at Brown Paper Tickets or at the door.

Change & Growth: "Violet" at U-M's Arthur Miller Theatre


Violet at U-M's Arthur Miller Theater

U-M's production of Violet doesn't shy away from looking at the play's themes of racism and acceptance in the context of today's socio-political troubles.

Violet is a musical that’s known both for its soaring gospel- and blues-infused score and for its social commentary about race relations. Originally written for Off-Broadway back in 1997, the show follows a young, facially disfigured Caucasian woman in 1964 who travels across the United States in the hopes of having her outward scars healed by a TV evangelist. Over the course of her journey, she meets and falls in love with an African-American man. “It’s about finding out who you are, accepting who you are, appreciating who you, and loving who you are. And then being able to navigate this world,” says Mark Madama, who is directing a production of Violet this weekend through the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance department.

U-M’s "Merry Wives of Windsor" brings Falstaffian wit to the holiday season


University of Michigan's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor

Left to right: Mallory Avnet (Mistress Page), Liam Loomer (Sir John Falstaff), and Christiana Moyle (Mistress Ford) in the University of Michigan Dept. of Theatre & Drama’s production of Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

The story is that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted by William Shakespeare’s raffish Sir John Falstaff in the historical plays Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, that she asked the playwright to give the rotund knight a play of his own, a love story for an aging rogue.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s only farce, has been a hit ever since. The University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre hopes to brighten the holiday season with its production of the play, Dec. 7-10 at the Power Center, under the direction of John Neville-Andrews, a professor of theatre at UM.

“I looked at the season and it’s a very serious and somewhat political season, so I thought around Christmas time we needed something humorous, funny, and enjoyable; hopefully a broad comedy for the public to come see at Power Center,” Neville-Andrews said.

Neville-Andrews said he has a particular fondness for this play.

“I’ve directed it a few times and I was lucky enough to have another crack at it,” he said, “I’ve come at it with a very different approach.”

Neville-Andrews said he is making the comedy broader than in his previous productions.

“I must confess there are some anachronisms that I have put in,” he said. “I’ve indulged myself a little bit. I’m hoping that will enhance the comedy and people will respond to that and not say, 'Well, you’re not doing Shakespeare, people weren’t like that in the 16th century.' So, I’m not doing Shakespeare in the most traditional way.”

Merry Wives of Windsor is far from the serious intentions of the Henry plays, which concern the maturing of young Prince Hal on his way to becoming Henry V. Here the action moves from London to the smaller community of Windsor, in the shadows of Windsor Castle. Falstaff and his pals from London move their antics to the Garter Inn in Windsor. Falstaff sends identical love letters to two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. When the two women compare notes, they begin to hatch a plot of revenge against the amorous and calculating Falstaff.

“It’s the only comedy that’s set in a specific town. Other comedies -- As You Like It, Twelfth Night -- are set in faraway places. When you look at it, it’s really about community,” said Neville-Andrews.

The community has welcomed outsiders before: a French doctor, a Welsh parson, and Mistress Quickly with her cockney accent.

The portrayal of this community is enhanced by set designer Gary Becker’s three-dimensional recreation of Windsor.

“It looks like the town of Windsor. In fact through the arch upstage you can actually see Windsor Castle,” Neville-Andrews said,

The set includes six Elizabethan houses on stage. And it’s all set for farce with four doors, a couples windows and the arch.

Some critics have complained that this Falstaff is not the same as the Falstaff in the Henry plays, where the heavy drinking knight was a sodden mentor to the future king. Neville-Andrews agrees that he doesn’t resemble that Falstaff, “but to a certain degree he does.”

“He’s still that chubby, ruffian, ragamuffin Falstaff and he’s still after money as he always is in the Henry plays. He and his cronies sort of ambush people to get their money, so he often seems to be in need of money and he needs money in this play as well,” Neville-Andrews said.

Queen Elizabeth asked for a Falstaff in love play, but Neville-Andrews said he doesn’t think she got what she asked for, as Falstaff is more in love with money and himself then the women he pursues.

The slender, young U-M junior Liam Loomer dons some extra padding to play the lead role of the fat old man with the witty quips and outrageous behavior.

“It’s really interesting, isn’t it, having to inhabit a physical space I’m not usually inhabiting,” said Loomer. “I also play with age. Falstaff is a little farther up in age than I am personally.”

Loomer said he is trying to find a way to show redeeming qualities in the old knight.

“It is about his love for himself and his love for money,” Loomer said. “But I’m trying to find a way to show his other connections to humanity and I think it’s easier in the Henry plays because of his connection with Hal as a father figure and not as easy to see in Merry Widows.”

Loomer said he got some experience playing a middle-aged character in U-M’s production of Ah Wilderness.

“He wasn’t as old as Falstaff; it’s not easy," Loomer said. "We were talking last night and he’s still a little too youthful. I am in my youth, fortunately. One thing about Falstaff, he’s sort of youthful in spirit and has a certain innocence."

Falstaff gets his comeuppance from the merry wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who out-trick the master trickster and others as well. Christie Moyle plays Mistress Ford and Mallory Abnet plays Mistress Page.

“I like to think that we are the smartest people in the room at all times. Which is pretty much true,” said Moyle. “They plan everything, they know what’s going to happen, they see it through. What I’ve found interesting is that it doesn’t come from a place of malice but they genuinely enjoy doing it.”

Moyle and Abnet agree that their antics grow as much from boredom and a lack of attention as from any serious attempt to do harm to Falstaff.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve done something like this and it’s funny,” said Abnet. “You have Falstaff trying to woo us and we have an opportunity to pull a prank and it’s so enjoyable.”

Moyle said the males can be easily tricked because they don’t take women seriously.

“We trick our husbands, we trick everybody,” said Moyle.

Abnet said it was interesting that the women were not one-note.

“There is a line that the wives may be merry but honest, too, and the men all assume they can only be one thing and with all these tricks they are constantly proving they are so much more than that stigma,” Abnet said.

The actresses had to adjust to the biases of the times and also the physical discomforts.

“The corsets are hard,” said Abnet. “I didn’t think they were going to be hard. When I went for my first costume fitting I was so excited, the corset felt great. But there is a lot of running around and carrying the basket (with Falstaff inside) and throwing things so I didn’t realize it would be so restricting, and I have so much respect for the people who actually wore those things.”

Though the play is intended to get an audience laughing, Neville-Andrews said the theme of community may leave audiences thinking about some current events.

“When Falstaff comes to Windsor, he’s an outsider and has to be accepted and he has to be ‘tortured’ and go through some kind of trial before they welcome him in,” Neville-Andrews said. “By the end of the play, they all come together accepting Falstaff and his cronies who are invited back to a dinner and a big fire. If you think of Falstaff and his cronies as being like immigrants to a country that doesn’t belong to them, it might be a stretch, but there is a lesson in there about how we accept or don’t accept immigrants into our country. Do we accept their religion, do we accept their manner?”

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 Merry Wives of Windsor" will be presented at 7:30 pm on Dec. 7, 8 pm on Dec. 8 and 9, and 2 pm on Dec. 10 at the Power Center on the central campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets call the League Ticket Office at 734-764-2538 or go online to tickets.smtd.umich.edu.

Mash-Up 'Mime: Theatre Nova's "The Year Without a Panto Clause"


Theatre Nova's The Year Without a Panto Clause

Theatre Nova's The Year Without a Panto Clause is an original play based on the English theatrical tradition that began in the 18th century.

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.