The Cost of Joy: "A New Brain" is odd, lovable, and filled with ear candy

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

A New Brain

“Sometimes joy has a terrible cost" is a quintessential lyric in William Finn’s autobiographical musical, A New Brain.

And in the production staged this past weekend at the Arthur Miller Theater by the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre, creatively blocked composer Gordon Michael Schwinn (Jack Mastrianni) gets an existential jolt of electricity by way of an unexpected, scary brush with death.

For just as Gordon struggles mightily to write a song for a children’s television show frog named Mr. Bungee (Matthew Sanguine), he meets up with his agent and best friend Rhoda (Brianna Stoute) for lunch and suddenly loses consciousness. After various tests, a hilariously blowhard doctor (Hugh Entrekin) tells Gordon he needs a craniotomy, and this scary news sends Gordon, his mother Mimi (Madeline Eaton), and his lover Roger (Luke Bove) into an emotional tailspin.

While this may not sound upbeat and lighthearted, A New Brain -- which premiered Off-Broadway in 1998, with music and lyrics by Finn, and a book by Finn and James Lapine -- is a kind of odd, lovable, small, shaggy dog of a musical. Because the primary narrative’s series of events is markedly compact (Gordon’s collapse, diagnosis, surgery, and outcome), the 90-minute show opens its doors with some quirky turns, providing space for fanciful character tangents (like “nice nurse” Richard’s lament, “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat”), minor characters (a homeless woman), and frog-haunted flights of hallucination and memory (“And They’re Off,” which fills in the blanks on why Gordon’s father isn’t part of the picture).

Inspired by Finn’s own arteriovenous malformation diagnosis, in the months following his Tony Award-winning success with FalsettosA New Brain is a flawed but endearing confection. For every seeming misstep -- to name one, the homeless character never wholly justifies her sizable footprint within the show (even though Daelynn Jorif’s vocals wowed me) -- there are several brilliant little strokes of wit, surprise, and warmth.

This Is America: Tylonn J. Sawyer's "WHITE HISTORY MONTH VOL. 1" at LSA Humanities Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Tylonn J. Sawyer, DNA drawing

DNA, charcoal, collage and gold leaf on paper, 96 “ X 67”, 2019.

Tylonn J. Sawyer's exhibition WHITE HISTORY MONTH VOL. 1 might not seem to be made for people who ask, “Why don’t we have a White History Month when we have Black History Month?”

But people who ask that question should see this exhibit at the LSA Humanities Gallery at the University of Michigan. 

Sawyer is an artist, educator, curator, and activist based in Detroit who tackles difficult questions of race and identity in American culture. He grapples with the "why don't we have" question by representing iconic African-Americans in his show devoted to “white history” by suggesting that white history is inextricably linked to black history in the U.S. He uses varied media in his explorations of identity and race, including drawings on paper, oil paintings, a soundtrack, and a short film.

His works at LSA range from monumental drawings to intimate portraits of influential black women artists. Sawyer disrupts typical histories of the Civil War and its monuments in these bodies of work by referencing the creation and destruction of monuments both in America and throughout known history. He also offers audiences new heroes through Grâce Noire, his series of charcoal and glitter portraits of black women artists, including Faith Ringgold, Kara Walker, Sydney G. James, and Tiff Massey, an interdisciplinary artist based in Detroit.

"Impulse Ann Arbor" documentary explores the present and history of the town's techno-music scene

MUSIC REVIEW

Impulse Ann Arbor

DJ and MEMCO member Victoria Johnson in a still from Jordan Stanton's documentary Impulse Ann Arbor.

If all you know of Jeff Hayner is that he's a sometimes controversial member of the Ann Arbor City Council for Ward 1, Jordan Stanton's Impulse Ann Arbor documentary will be an eye-opener. 

The film is primarily about the university-affiliated Michigan Electronic Music Collective (MEMCO), a group of student DJs, producers, dancers, and fans who support and promote techno via a variety of events, including the monthly Impulse party.

But Impulse Ann Arbor also explores the connection between the current techno scene and the people who helped launch it -- and that includes Hayner, who was a longtime co-host of WCBN's Crush Collision, which began in 1987 and continues to this day (Thursdays, 10 pm to 1 am, 89.1-FM). 

Hayner's DJ name was Jeffrey Nothing -- borrowed from David Lynch's Blue Velvet. In the early 1990s, Hayner and Crush Collision co-host Brendan Gillen (aka BMG, aka Ectomorph) were early enthusiastic supporters of Detroit techno and its offshoots, helping draw a line of influence to Ann Arbor from the Motor City (with a zig through Belleville -- home of electronica pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson). 

Gillen and Hayner are two of several talking heads in Impulse Ann Arbor, including current MEMCO members DJ Holographic, Cat Kenzie, Kavin Pawittranon, and others, as well as Shigeto, aka Zachary Saginaw, whose accent is so PURE MICHIGAN that it adds an extra level of local love to his affectionate words about the town where he grew up. They all pay tribute to A2's legacy as a progressive place -- musically and otherwise -- and the MEMCO DJs do a fine job of explaining the collective's mission to be inclusive and mentoring, passing knowledge to anyone who wants to learn how to create a dancefloor-filling mix. The 22-minute documentary also gives nods to the Nectarine Ballroom -- aka Necto -- which was an early Ann Arbor home for industrial electronic music and techno, and to WCBN's legacy as one the local scene's hubs in the 1990s.

Director Stanton is a senior at U-M and co-president of MEMCO, so it's no surprise his Impact Ann Arbor reads like a love letter to the organization he helps lead and the university town that supports it. But what's not to love about dancing the night away among friends, or DJing music that makes people from different backgrounds come together under the same beat?

Even councilmember Hayner still spins from time to time -- on the turntables. There are no politics on the dancefloor.

See Impulse Ann Arbor below:

Interactive Empathy: "Way Opens (Disability Arts and Culture)" at Riverside Arts Center

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Still from Petra Kuppers' Salamander

Still from Petra Kuppers' The Olimpias (Salamander Video). Image courtesy Riverside Arts Center.

In its juried exhibition Way Opens (Disability Arts and Culture), Riverside Arts Center asks, “What does ‘disabled’ mean to such a broad range of people who identify as such?”

Works in the show certainly address artists’ personal experiences with disability, but also offer opportunities for audiences to explore what this means interactively, ideally working toward empathy and interrogation into internalized perceptions of disability. Artists in the show grapple with questions of identity and disability, mostly in America, through multimedia installations, interactive exhibits, painting, fiber arts, video, sculpture, and written word. 

The Riverside Arts Center gallery space included multiple changes to the layout typically used for a group exhibition. The center space, instead of being open, or containing installations that require physical engagement, contained tables and chairs to allow visitors to sit and enjoy the show from many positions. The gallery’s book of artist statements is printed in large type and, in addition to the usual statements and bios, includes detailed descriptions of each exhibit for visually impaired visitors. 

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!”