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.

Never-Ending Greatness: Bob Dylan and His Band at Hill Auditorium

MUSIC REVIEW

Bob Dylan at Hill Auditorium, November 1981

Because no photographers are allowed at his concerts now, here's Bob Dylan at Hill Auditorium in November 1981. Photo by Robert Chase.

On November 6, Bob Dylan visited Hill Auditorium for the 7th time as part of his Never Ending Tour -- 57.5 years after his initial performance in Ann Arbor on April 22, 1962.

The Pulp feature "Highway I-94, M-14 & US-23 Revisted: A Comprehensive History of Bob Dylan in Ann Arbor" noted that this was the legend's 12th concert in town. But unlike his early shows here, which were marked by banter with and by the audience, Dylan's most recent show at Hill Auditorium was defined by his longtime approach to performing: he did not once address the audience verbally, instead only interacting through the music.

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.

Never Forget: Rachel Willis' exhibit at GalleryDAAS memorializes slavery in Detroit and Martinique

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Rachel Willis' exhibit at GalleryDASS

The University of Michigan Department of Afroamerican and African Studies' GalleryDAAS is hosting a multi-media collaborative exhibit by artist and scholar Rachel Willis, titled Il faut se souvenir, we must not forget: Memorializing Slavery in Detroit and Martinique. It combines Willis’ background in fine arts, history, and Francophone studies to bring the under-told history of slavery in Detroit and Martinique. 

Willis was raised in Detroit and received a Bachelor of Arts in French & Francophone Studies from the University of Michigan. In her current work, Willis employs a multi-disciplinary approach to her subject matter, using photographs, historical texts, and technology to explore the history of Detroit’s ties to slavery and the French Caribbean Island of Martinique. Willis is currently working on a Master of Arts in Transcultural Studies, with a focus on Francophone and Caribbean history. Her passion to make little-known yet highly important histories accessible through gallery text and voice tour, paired with photography, creates both a challenging and dynamic experience in GalleryDAAS. 

The Body Politic: Japanese artist Mari Katayama challenges attitudes toward the differently abled in her debut U.S. solo show

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Katayama, Bystander #001, 2016

Mari Katayama, Bystander #001, 2016.

The first solo show in the United States for Japanese artist Mari Katayama is right here in Ann Arbor.

Katayama’s works are on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in the Irving Stenn Jr. Family Gallery through January 26, 2020. Her creations include both photographs and sculptures that disrupt normative viewing of the body, which weave a narrative that rejects dominant cultural and societal attitudes toward disabled bodies. Katayama not only uses her own body as a subject, but she also incorporates surrealist, complex, and skillful handmade prosthetics from textiles and other materials. Her works explore concepts of the self, the body and objectification, voyeurism, and agency. 

Rock 'n' Roll Theater: John Cameron Mitchell took listeners on a journey at Hill Auditorium

MUSIC REVIEW

John Cameron Mitchell The Origin of Love Nov 2 2019 by Doug Coombe

Photo by Doug Coombe

Saturday night’s Hill Auditorium performance by John Cameron Mitchell drew a crowd that likely skewed a bit younger and edgier than many University Musical Society audiences.

From where I sat, bold body art and piercings, asymmetrical haircuts, and statement eyeglasses abounded. And although about two decades have passed since Mitchell first created and performed in the groundbreaking show (and film) that would become his calling card, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he not only rocked Hill Auditorium on his ongoing Origin of Love Tour but crowd-surfed, Superman-style, during an encore number.

But the two-hour concert kicked off with a direct reference from Hedwig, as powerhouse guest vocalist Amber Martin arrived first on stage and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not … John Cameron Mitchell!”

Be, Hear, Now: yMusic brought its contemporary classical and crossover collaborations to Rackham

MUSIC REVIEW INTERVIEW

yMusic by Graham Tolbert

Photo by Graham Tolbert.

If you aren’t paying attention at the beginning of Andrew Norman’s “Music in Circles” you might miss it. The first note is just so quiet, an almost imperceptible harmonic whispered high in the viola, the kind of airy, insubstantial noise you have to strain to hear.

But once you hear it you’re hooked.

That first lonely pitch is like a slow intake of breath, interrupted after a moment by a stuttering spiccato exhalation that foreshadows the energy that is to come. Slowly the viola is joined by other strings, and patiently the music unfolds and intensifies until, some two and a half minutes in the viola takes off with an up-tempo rhythmic pulse produced by bouncing the bow vertically off the strings, generating a sound that is a blend between being pitched and being a percussive noise.

From here the music grows in volume and intensity as the cello and trumpet play yearning arpeggiated lines, the bass clarinet pitches in with a fluttering falling figure, the violin scratches wildly and the flute shoots jets of air. It’s thrilling. And then it winds down again, just as patiently as the music of the opening developed.

Eventually, the piece closes out with soft, slowly moving echoes of the previous material, pared down until it’s only the viola, again, playing alone, with that same airy harmonic it began with.

“Music in Circles” has always been one of yMusic’s more popular pieces, at least on the classical music side of things, so it’s no wonder that the group chose to program it on last Friday’s performance at Rackham Auditorium.

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.

Happy Sad: The Cactus Blossoms' shimmering folk-rock hit a harmonious sweet spot at The Ark

MUSIC REVIEW

Cactus Blossoms at The Ark

The Cactus Blossoms at The Ark. Photo by Amanda Szot.

Why is it that sad songs make us feel better? 

Esther Rose, opening act at Thursday night’s show headlined by The Cactus Blossoms at the Ark, asked that question partway through her set as she realized that all of her songs to that point had been a bit melancholy.

A Michigan native, but a New Orleans resident for the past decade, Rose sang songs of loves lost and found. Not just people, but places too -- from her family’s farm near Flint, Michigan, to the love of the Lower Ninth Ward in her adopted hometown. Her earnest songwriting and clear vocals were paired with sparse instrumentation. She was joined on stage by Jordan Hyde, who provided backup vocals and lead guitar. Her debut album, You Made It This Far, was released in 2019 on Father/Daughter records.
 
The Cactus Blossoms are brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey on main vocals and guitar, now joined eldest brother Tyler Burkum on guitar, cousin Phillip Hicks on bass, and Jeremy Hanson on drums. Formed in Minneapolis, The Cactus Blossoms have a sound influenced by classic country, folk-inspired storytelling, and the harmonies of famous sibling duos, with some good old-fashioned rock and roll reverb from the ‘60s. The band members started exploring this style of music around 2006 while investigating their local library’s music collection and through a friend whose collection of obscure folk music and “high lonesome” sounds was particularly intriguing.
 

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.