Dear U-M Grads: Broadway and TV stars Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Darren Criss returned to campus

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Justin Paul, Benj Pasek and Darren Criss on stage at U-M's Rackham Auditorium

Star Power: U-M alums Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Darren Criss at Rackham Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Literati Bookstore.

At one point during Thursday night’s sold out, joyous on-stage conversation with Grammy, Tony, and Oscar award-winning songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- who met and started writing songs together when they were U-M musical theater students (’06) -- surprise guest moderator Darren Criss (Glee) stated what many of us were thinking: “Collectively, we’re a Michigan EGOT.”

Yes, Criss (’09) arrived in Ann Arbor fresh off his Emmy win for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, while Pasek and Paul came to promote a newly released novelization of their hit Broadway show, Dear Evan Hansen.

But the nearly two-hour event, presented by Literati Bookstore at U-M’s Rackham Auditorium, mostly felt like a chance to crash a reunion of really talented, witty friends who’d also, along the way, perform a few songs and a short reading. 

It’s all about the dancing in U-M’s "Sweet Charity"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Sweet Charity

You don’t have to be a big spender to enjoy the University of Michigan’s engaging, dance-happy return to the 1960s, Sweet Charity.

Sweet Charity is a lighter, thinner adaptation of Federico Fellini’s film Nights of Cabiria. The Neil Simon book changes the prostitutes of Rome into New York City taxi dancers at the Fandango Dance Hall. And the story is a mere pretext for the often-exhilarating dance numbers and clever songs.

With music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity is always on the move from the minute that Nevada Koenig struts on stage as the ever hopeful and usually disappointed Charity Hope Valentine. This is a musical about frustrated romance, but it’s also a musical about dance and movement.

Full Range: Pat Metheny explored 40 years of music at his Hill Auditorium concert

MUSIC REVIEW

Pat Metheny

World-renowned guitarist and composer Pat Metheny has written a lot of music over a 40-plus-year career, and with his current tour he is taking the time to dig deeper into some of the older material. Rather than release an album and tour new tunes, he decided to put a small group of consummate musicians together who are capable of playing a wide variety of his music from across the decades. But don’t call this a retrospective. Instead, it’s more like research. The players are digging into the old tunes and finding new pathways to navigate. Metheny has clearly chosen his bandmates to be able to find fresh ways to improvise over his material.

Metheny’s UMS-sponsored performance on October 10 at Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium felt surprisingly intimate considering there were 4,000 people in attendance. The stage was set up almost like a rehearsal space, with the supporting musicians arranged in a tight circle around Metheny. The band played loose, keeping arrangements minimal and playing off of each other throughout the set. Metheny came out first, performing a beautiful solo piece on the 42-string Pikasso guitar, built for him by luthier Linda Manzer. The guitar itself is a work of art with a huge range, and Metheny used the whole instrument, fretting deep bass notes with his left hand while improvising beautiful harp-like melodies on the drone strings. Following that first piece, the rest of the band took the stage, and the energy kicked up and stayed up for the rest of the night.

Her Story Is History: Brenda Travis, "Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter"

WRITTEN WORD REVIEW

Brenda Travis and her book Mississippi's Exiled Daughter

Brenda L. Travis, June 2, 1962. Photographer unknown, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (LC-USZ62-135777).

Brenda Travis surprised me.

When she came to AADL on September 27 to discuss her book Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter with her co-author, John Obee, I hadn’t expected her to burst into song. But that’s exactly what she did, singing parts of "Ella’s Song," a tune written in honor of civil and human rights leader Ella Baker. The audience joined in, singing with her. Her talk was not to be a passive listening experience.

“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons,
is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons ...
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes”
--lyrics from "Ella’s Song"

Travis then explained that one of the reasons that she’s still on the civil rights journey is that she still believes in freedom. “There is still a place called hope," she said, "and we have to make hope our homes. We have to continue this struggle and fight until we can get it right. ... To the young people, I’m hoping tonight that I can instill or wake up something within you to want to carry on this battle, to carry on this fight, because if you don’t we’re going to be lost -- not just a nation but a lost world.” 

The Art of Eating (& Living) Well: Cookbook author Julia Turshen & Chef Kate Williams at Literati

WRITTEN WORD REVIEW

Kate Williams and Julia Turshen

Chef Kate Williams (left) and cookbook author Julia Turshen talked food and social justice at Literati.

“For Grace, whom I fell in love with then and do again and again …” --Julia Turshen’s dedication in her newest cookbook, "Now & Again"

Had food writer/home chef Julia Turshen and creative-community blogger Grace Bonney never fallen in love, I may not have been introduced to the cookbook author’s work. I had loosely followed Bonney’s work at Design*Sponge for years. While I’m not in the habit of following the personal milestones of strangers, the moment I found out Bonney was married to Turshen, I thought, “Well, she’s gotta be cool,” and promptly followed her on Instagram. I’ve been intrigued ever since. 

On Monday, September 24, Turshen visited Literati to talk about her latest cookbook, Now & Again: Go-To Recipes Inspired Menus + Endless Ideas for Reinventing Leftovers. She was in conversation with chef Kate Williams from Lady of the House restaurant in Detroit and journalist Ashley Woods. 

After the audience settled in the space, reinitiating us to fall time in Michigan as we figured out where best to lay our umbrellas, Woods began the talk by asking Turshen and Williams how food and community became entwined for each them. 

Joan Baez summed up her iconic career at the Michigan Theater

MUSIC REVIEW

Joan Baez

It’s not easy to say goodbye to an old friend. Maybe that’s why the great Joan Baez is calling her final tour, which came to the Michigan Theater on Tuesday, “Fare Thee Well.” 

If indeed that’s the last time Ann Arbor gets to see Baez in person, she left us with an evening full of terrific memories. She set a relaxed, friendly tone from the very start, when she strolled out on stage alone, with no introduction at all, drawing the first of several standing ovations.

Any apprehension about how she might sound at age 77 disappeared as soon as she began to sing. If her voice doesn’t quite have the crystalline edge it once did, it’s still a gorgeous, powerful force, full of warmth and depth. Accompanying herself on guitar, she fleshed out the sound with various combinations of a backup singer, a multi-instrumentalist, and a percussionist (who happens to be her son, Gabe).

Baez has a fine new album out, Whistle Down the Wind, and she played several songs from it Tuesday. The bulk of the show, however, leaned toward old favorites, to the delight of the sellout crowd. 

Titanic Comedy: Jeff Daniels’ "Diva Royale" keeps audiences laughing

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Diva Royale at The Purple Rose Theatre

Kate Thomsen, Kristin Shields, Rhiannon Ragland star in Jeff Daniel's latest play, Diva Royale, at The Purple Rose Theatre. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

You can’t typecast Jeff Daniels. He’s played someone dumb (and dumber), a highly intelligent newsman, and lots of other characters with assorted traits, interests, and careers. 

He’s got roots in the theater, and he’s equally comfortable on the big and little screen. He also writes and performs folk songs. As founder of The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, he’s produced plays. 

Jeff Daniels writes plays, too.  

Of course, you can’t expect Daniels to limit himself to one style or subject. His 17 plays, all presented at the Rose, include a searing look at friendships between people with different incomes that mixed realism with farcical elements, a political drama that showed the way the tragic situation in Flint has impacted relationships, and a comedy about hunting set in the U.P.  He’s written in the style of Samuel Beckett and Neil Simon with equal ease.

And the Daniels play that’s on the boards at the Purple Rose now, Diva Royale, is a lively slapstick comedy that feels very much like a musical comedy. The opening night audience responded to the musicality of the show, clapping after scenes the way spectators at musicals usually clap after musical numbers.   

Morag Myerscough creates welcoming worlds that make us reconsider our own

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Morag Myerscough, Temple of Agape

Temple of Agape by Morag Myerscough (left) and Luke Morgan. Installation photo by Gareth Gardner.

A sucker for colors, I was persuaded solely by the image on the Penny Stamps Speaker Series calendar to see Morag Myerscough speak at the Michigan Theater on September 20 on the theme of  “belonging."

Myerscough is a visual artist in London who "explores the theme of 'belonging' in her work, using it to transform public spaces by creating welcoming, engaging experiences for everyone." The Stamps website photo of Myerscough’s structure Temple of Agape, built in partnership with Luke Morgan for London's 2014 Festival of Love, is covered with vibrant hues, visually busy interacting shapes, and positive words that combine for a psychedelic carnival vibe.

At the Michigan, Myerscough took the stage wearing all black and white. Her shirt reminded me of Picasso’s stripes. Her jumpsuit made me wish I looked better in them. Her sheer, long, flowing top layer completed the look. And then there was a surprise, a pop of color: bright Chuck Taylor sneakers.

“Morag’s visual vocabulary is inclusive by nature.” --Elaine Sims

Encore’s "A Little Night Music" takes a rueful look at love

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's A Little Night Music

Sebastian Gerstner stars as the obnoxious Carl-Magnus and Leah Fox is his exasperated wife, Countess Charlotte, in Encore Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

Encore Musical Theatre continues its love affair with Stephen Sondheim with A Little Night Music, Sondheim’s wistful and rueful look at love.

Night Music, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, was, as the Encore program notes “suggested by” one of Ingmar Bergman’s rare comedies, Smiles of a Summer’s Night. The setting is still Sweden at the turn of the 20th Century. A successful lawyer has recently married a much younger woman who has remained virginal during their eight months of marriage. She has developed a growing attraction to the lawyer’s seminarian son, who is wrestling with deep sexual conflicts of his own.

Things become complicated when the lawyer, Fredrik, comes home with tickets to see the noted stage actress Desiree Armfeldt, an old flame for whom the embers are still glowing. Desiree has started to grow weary of life as a touring actress and her affair with the obnoxious and married Count Carl-Magnus. Fredrik’s troubled married life and his love triangle with Desiree and Carl-Magnus eventually play out in the pastoral setting Desiree’s mother’s country house.

This might sound very serious, and it is, but it’s also serious comedy.

Through Molly’s Eyes: The Kickshaw Theatre Takes us to "Milvotchkee, Visconsin"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Kickshaw Theatre's Milvotchkee, Wisconsin

Talking Molly: Brenda Lane, Dave Davies, and Nancy Elizabeth Kammer are part of the six-person cast in "Milvotchkee, Visconsin." Photos by Sean Carter Photography

Molly has a hole in her head. Memories are escaping through it. Her doctor thinks that’s entirely possible. At least, that’s the way Molly hears what he says. 

Fred Smith, who built a statue park in Milvotchkee, Visconsin--Molly gave tours of the park for many years -- was struck by lightning. He lived for 12 years after that. What happened during those years? Molly is obsessed with this story, which may or may not have some relationship to reality. 

The Kickshaw Theatre’s current offering, Laura Jacqmin’s Milvotchkee, Visconsin, is set in various locations in Milvotchkee, a place you won’t find on any map, and in Molly’s mind as she descends into dementia. Molly encounters a variety of people in places that include a hospital, a movie theater, and her distorted memory.