Fraught reunions with old friends are at the core of Penny Seat's "First Snow"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The cast of Penny Seats's First Snow sit on stage steps in front of the play's set.

Reunited and it feels so weird: Nora (Celah Convis), Bob (Jonathan Jones), Natalie (Patrice Linman), Lisa (Josie Eli Herman), and Evan (Michael Alan Herman) are old high school buddies who reunite after a long time apart in Joseph Zettelmaier’s new play, First Snow, produced by The Penny Seats Theatre Company. Photo courtesy of Penny Seats.

The prospect of seeing friends from high school, after a years-long separation, always feels fraught. Will it be awkward? Will they judge you? Will you judge them? What will you talk about? Will you somehow ruin perfectly contained, long-packed-away memories?

This anxiety’s at the core of Joseph Zettelmaier’s new play, First Snow, now having its world premiere production via The Penny Seats Theatre Company at The Stone Chalet Event Center in Ann Arbor.

Evan (Michael Alan Herman), a Chicago-based photographer, vanished from his small hometown shortly after his high school graduation, when both of his parents died in a car accident. In the 10-year interim, he’s eschewed all contact with his best high school band buddies Lisa (Josie Eli Herman) and Bob (Jonathan Jones).

But music teacher Lisa—with whom Evan was once romantically involved—finally tracks him down to invite him to a holiday party in her home, which she shares with her young daughter, Natalie (Patrice Linman); and because Evan is working on a photo series about holiday celebrations, the invitation dovetails with his work. What Evan doesn’t know, though, is that he and Bob—and Bob’s wide-eyed, former-popular-girl wife Nora (Celah Convis)—are the only ones on this party’s guest list.

Not that this is malevolently ominous. The three friends simply have things they need to say to each other in order to move forward.

Encore Theatre's “A Christmas Story: The Musical" sings the praises of the classic film

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The scene from A Christmas Story where the excited dad pulls the leg lamp out of the shipping box as the family looks on in confusion.

The musical version of A Christmas Story has a dogged loyalty to the 1983 movie’s script—but with good reason since it's a charming and funny childhood tale. Photo courtesy of Encore Theatre.

A stage musical based on a beloved film classic—like, say, A Christmas Story: The Musical, now being staged at Dexter’s Encore Theatre—can be a double-edged sword. 

Yes, it’s a known commodity, so people will often line up to see it without too much coaxing, but the show’s creators must delicately thread the needle of staying true enough to the original material to satisfy fans, while also providing enough surprises and new elements to remake the story in a new medium.

If anything, the musical adaptation of A Christmas Story—with a book by Joseph Robinette, and music and lyrics by University of Michigan alums Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (before they won Tonys for Dear Evan Hansen)—errs slightly on the side of dogged loyalty to the 1983 movie’s script, straining to check every classic-moment box. 

Yet the reason Story has so many such boxes is because it is a funny, charmingly rendered, nostalgic slice of American childhood, set in a small Indiana town in 1940. 

Drawn from radio stories told by humorist Jean Shepherd in the 1950s, Story focuses on the pre-Christmas trials and tribulations of 9-year-old Ralphie Parker (Gavin Cooney), who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun. The problem is, he can’t convince his parents (David Moan and Jessica Grové), his teacher (Alley Ellis), or even a department store Santa (Mitchell Hardy) that if he gets one, he won’t “shoot his eye out.”

But Ralphie keeps scheming while also dealing with bullies, theme papers, and a gruff father who’s chasing his own form of validation. 

First, let’s address the baby elephant in the room:

Andrea Carlson's "Future Cache" exhibit at UMMA imagines decolonized landscapes for the native peoples violently removed from their land

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Andrea Carlson, Sky in the Morning Hours of "Binaakwiiwi-giizis 15, 1900", 2022, gouache on paper. Courtesy of the artist © Andrea Carlson.

Andrea Carlson, Sky in the Morning Hours of "Binaakwiiwi-giizis 15, 1900", 2022, gouache on paper. Courtesy of the artist © Andrea Carlson.

“Gidayaa Anishinaabewakiing / You are on Anishinaabe land”

The title of Andrea Carlson’s multidimensional installation Future Cache at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) references the Anishinaabe storage practice of using underground caches to store supplies through the seasons. 

The centerpiece of Future Cache, however, doesn't train your gaze toward the ground but up to the sky.

UMMA's Vertical Gallery has a towering 40-foot-high wall of memorial text. Written by the Burt Lake Tribal Council and presented in Anishinaabemowin (translated by Margaret Noodin and Michael Zimmerman Jr.) and English, the words commemorate the historical and ongoing effects of colonial violence on the Cheboiganing (Burt Lake) Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

On the lower level, a cache of Carlson's paintings complements the tower of text with imagined decolonized landscapes, as well as two carefully selected artifacts. Curator Jennifer M. Friess writes in the gallery text that Carlson aims "to draw attention to the theft of Indigenous land and to express solidarity with Indigenous communities on the long journey toward restitution.” 

​​"Conversations on Mortality" at 22 North looks to transcend the silence about the dying side of living

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Marta Carvajal, Blending With Nature, multimedia

Marta Carvajal, Blending With Nature, multimedia

Conversations on mortality are difficult, often avoided, and in America, they are traditionally taboo. The 22 North gallery in Ypsilanti welcomes the thought-provoking exhibit ​​Conversations on Mortality, which confronts our impermanence, the inevitability of death.

The exhibition's multimedia works engage with loss, mourning, and what is left behind once someone is gone. Described by the curators as “a chance to transcend the silence,” Conversations on Mortality offers works driven by the lives of the artists. Not only do they address the complexity of their mortality and loss of loved ones, but also their experiences of living with disability, illness, and the impact of COVID-19. ​​

​​Entering the space, hanging lanterns in an autumnal palette cheerily frame serendipitously matching works by curators Sharlene Welton and Tim Tonachella. I had a chance to speak with Welton who is both the show’s curator and an artist when I visited 22 North. Welton said she created the lanterns as part of an interactive element to the opening night, where visitors were able to decorate and write their names on the lanterns before hanging them. The pieces by Welton (a large painting) and Tonachella (two photographs of cemetery views) were brought in last minute when an artist was unable to make the show, but adding the works ended up being a great aesthetic success.

​​Welton and Tonachella’s gallery statement notes the overlapping threads among the works, as artists grapple with the questions, “How do we embrace the changes that come from death and dying, and more importantly, how we assimilate the loss into our daily living?” Though these may, ultimately, be unanswerable questions, they are worth asking—especially when operating within a mainstream American culture that predominantly ignores them. 

Songs of the Night: Berlin Philharmonic brought Mahler's 7th back to Hill Auditorium

MUSIC REVIEW

Conductor Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic

Berlin Philharmonic and conductor Kirill Petrenko at an unidentified performance. Photo by Monika Rittershaus.

I’d be shocked if there were a single empty seat in the house last Saturday night.

As people ducked out of the swirling snow flurries of the storm that would blanket the town over the course of the next few hours, the lobby of the 3,000-seat Hill Auditorium began to fill to the brim with eagerly bustling patrons.

And no wonder—it’s not every day that you have the chance to hear what’s arguably the world’s best orchestra perform music by one of history’s best composers.

It’s been six years, almost to the day, since Ann Arbor heard from the Berlin Philharmonic, courtesy of the University Musical Society (UMS). When they last played Hill, to a similarly packed house, Simon Rattle was still at the helm of the orchestra, two years away from stepping down as chief conductor and artistic director, roles he’d held since 2002. I managed to attend one concert out of two that year, and it remains etched in my memory as one of the best orchestral experiences I’ve ever had—a thrilling offering of music from the Second Viennese School and a Brahms symphony that was all conducted, impressively, from memory. 

Saturday’s performance was no less remarkable.

Group Swim: PTD Productions' "The Sweet Delilah Swim Club" makes a splash on the importance of friends

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

"The Sweet Delilah Swim Club" celebrates the friendship of five women over time.

The Sweet Delilah Swim Club celebrates the friendship of five women over time. Artwork courtesy of PTD Productions.

PTD Productions' The Sweet Delilah Swim Club is funny, heartwarming, and shows the beautiful bonds of five women just trying to get through life.

This comedy, written by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, takes us to North Carolina and introduces us to a group of girlfriends who met swimming for their college swim team. Every year during the same weekend in August, they rent out the same beachside cottage in the Outer Banks and use that time to catch up with one another and have a yearly group swim. Time progresses rapidly in this show, with the first scene taking place 22 years after graduation and the characters in their early 40s. By the end of the show, another 33 years have passed and the ladies are in their 70s.

Marie Jones plays Sheree, the former captain of the team and the group’s Type A organizer. She has a set schedule for each day and gets overwhelmed if the schedule doesn’t go according to plan. Sheree's weird health food disgusts her friends even though they all pretend to like it. Jones’ performance is endearing and honest as she navigates a character learning to give up some control.

Fox on the Run: U-M Department of Voice's "The Cunning Little Vixen" was a feast for the eyes and ears

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

U-M's production of The Cunning Little Vixen.

Colleen Cole Beucher plays the Rooster-attacking Vixen as Cinderella Ksebati as the hen Chocholka worries in U-M's production of the opera The Cunning Little Vixen. Photo courtesy of U-M Department of Voice.

For the weekend of November 3-6, the Power Center at U-M was transformed into a magical, wooded wonderland for the Czech opera The Cunning Little Vixen. The U-M Department of Voice and the University Symphony Orchestra came together to present this whimsical tale composed by Leoš Janáček, with the reduced version arranged by Jonathan Dove. 

The original libretto was adapted from the 1920 serialized novella Liška Bystrouška by Rudolf Tésnohlídek and follows the story of a Vixen (female fox) and a Forester. While out in the woods, the Forester falls asleep and when a playful Frog wakes him up, he sees the Little Vixen, traps her, and takes her back to his farm. We move ahead in time and the Little Vixen has grown up, now referred to as simply the Vixen, and is treated as a pet at the Forester’s farm. There is conflict on the farm and she is tied up after defending herself against the Forester’s son and his friend.

John Gutoskey’s vibrant “Cake & Flowers for My People” exhibit preserves ephemeral arrangements denied to LGBTQ+ marriages and events

PULP VISUAL ART REVIEW

John Gutoskey stands near his floral bouquet monoprints at 22 North.

John Gutoskey features colorful floral bouquet monoprints in his Cake & Flowers for My People exhibit at 22 North. Photo by Lori Stratton.

John Gutoskey’s vibrant, kaleidoscopic Cake & Flowers for My People exhibit honors LGBTQ+ community members who have been denied these celebratory arrangements due to bakers and florists citing religious objections to same-sex marriages and queer events.

“I make a lot of work about queerness because a lot of stuff is happening around it in our country. You see the whole pushback now,” said the Ann Arbor artist-designer-printmaker, whose exhibit runs through October 30 at Ypsilanti’s 22 North gallery. “I just hope anybody who sees it … feels seen and knows they’re not alone.”

The welcoming aesthetics of Gutoskey’s exhibit run throughout the eight mixed-media cake sculptures and 39 floral bouquet monoprints. An electrifying spectrum of color elicits feelings of empowerment, unity, and hope for all who experience Cake & Flowers for My People.

“People are kind of overwhelmed with how hard the world has become, so I just wanted to do something that was fun,” he said. “There’s enough stuff to be down about. Let’s celebrate it, honestly, while it’s still legal for [us] to do so.”

Wynton Marsalis' "All Rise" stirred souls at Hill Auditorium—and his trumpet fired up The Big House crowd

MUSIC REVIEW

More than 200 musicians on stage at Hill Auditorium rehearsing Wynton Marsalis' "All Rise."

More than 200 musicians are shown rehearsing Wynton Marsalis' "All Rise" on stage at Hill Auditorium. Photo courtesy UMS. 

For nearly two decades, I've attended Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis concerts hosted by the University Music Society (UMS). The shows and attendant residency are an institution now in Ann Arbor, and under Marsalis' stewardship, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) is the current reigning G.O.A.T. of large ensembles.

But Marsalis' latest Ann Arbor production with the JLCO was the most ambitious undertaking of his 22-year association with UMS. 

You can always bank on Marsalis to deliver monumental projects like culturally and politically relevant recordings such as From the Plantation to the PenitentiaryThe Abyssinian Mass, and his 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Blood on the Fields. On Friday, October 14, at Hill Auditorium, Marsalis pulled off another massive undertaking: "All Rise (Symphony No. 1.) For Symphony Orchestra Jazz Orchestra, and Chorus." 

"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.