Encore Theatre's junior production of "James and the Giant Peach" finds a way to make everything better

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

James and the Giant Peach

A Nancy Ekholm Burkert illustration from the 1961 edition of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how trippy a moment we find ourselves in that the work of Roald Dahl seems suddenly, particularly ubiquitous.

For just as a touring production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues its run at Detroit’s Fisher Theater, regional productions of the James and the Giant Peach stage musical -- with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald, and music and lyrics by U-M grads and Oscar, Tony, and Grammy Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- have been sprouting up everywhere, including at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

Encore’s junior production, which begins February 28 and runs for eight performances through March 8, features 22 young performers, ranging in age from eight to 18.

“One of the things I love about [the show] is, not just the chosen family aspect of it, but also, James has this ability to be dealt a terrible hand constantly, and yet he always finds a way to make it better, and always finds the good in things that other are quick to overlook and discard,” said Matthew Brennan, the director of Encore’s production. “The insects, for example, these pests people just want out of their house. … [H]e finds potential in them, and that speaks to something really cool about this story.”

Wordplay and funny fisticuffs highlight "Jeeves Intervenes" at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Jeeves Intervenes

Agatha Spencer-Gregson (Ann Stoner) comforts her niece Gertrude Winkelsworth-Bode (Veronica Long) as Eustace Bassington-Bassington (Ryan Mauritz) fights with Bertie Wooster (Sean Magill) with the help of Uncle Rupert (Chris Martin), as Jeeves (Rory Quist) remains calmly in control in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Jeeves Intervenes. Photo by Aaron C. Wade | Lions Paw Films and Photography.

Monty Python didn’t invent the upper-class Brit twit. That honor goes to P.G. Wodehouse with his man-about-town Bertie Wooster. 

Wodehouse was a humorist, novelist, short-story writer, Broadway lyricist (teaming with composer Jerome Kern), and man about town in the 1920s when he created Bertie. But he didn’t leave his inept creation without support, because he also created a witty man’s man, the very epitome of the valet, Reginald Jeeves, but always called just Jeeves.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre will take audiences back to Wodehouse’s fanciful, upper crusty London of the 1920s when it presents Margaret Raether’s stage adaptation of Wodehouse in Jeeves Intervenes, March 12-15 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the University of Michigan North Campus.

Director Andy Jentzen said it was Wodehouse’s playful use of language and a BBC series that got him interested in Jeeves and Wooster.

"Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire" chronicles 826's mission to empower school-age writers

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book, Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd., McSweeny's and 826's Amanda Uhle and Kitania Folk

Top: Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book and Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd. Bottom: McSweeney's and 826's Kitania Folk and Amanda Uhle.

A time travel mart. An apothecary for the magical. An alien supermarket. A mid-continent oceanographic institute. A secret agent supply. A place for pirates.

These places are just a few of the many storefronts -- complete with their own imaginative products -- that serve as portals to literary writing spaces for youth around the world.

The one in Ann Arbor is known as the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, and the one in Detroit is called the Detroit Robot Factory.

The inspiration for these quirky businesses and equally creative writing centers comes from the brainchild of Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, who together started the first 826 Valencia location -- the pirate supply shop -- in San Francisco, though not with that intent at the beginning. When renting a building in 2002, they’d planned for offices for the nonprofit publishing company, McSweeney’s, along with an area for tutoring local youth.

But the building’s zoning was for retail, and consequently, the pirate supply shop was born to fulfill the criteria.

High on Books: Shelly Smith's "Reads & Weeds" podcast cultivates the best sentences and strains

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Shelly Smith

Photo by Moni Jones/Her & HIm Studio.

A love of the written word, cultivated cannabis, and the buzziest broadcast medium inspired Ypsilanti-based comedian Shelly Smith to start the podcast Reads & Weeds.

Smith had appeared on other comedians’ podcasts as a guest but, she says, “I wanted to do more than sit around and talk -- I wanted to do something more intentional. Some friends talked about doing a book club and it dawned on me that a podcast, revolving around cannabis and books, was the perfect cross-section of my interests.”

The upbeat, irreverent Reads & Weeds is a delightful listen. There is fun banter about topics ranging from Ryan Seacrest to self-publishing books to women in prison to back tattoos. The show features a variety of co-hosts plus fellow readers who stop by, which makes for a riotous atmosphere. Smith’s childhood friend, Kris Walton, handles the technical aspect of the show in addition to occasionally co-hosting. Walton joined Smith on an October episode discussing Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, which joined an impressive list of eclectic books that have been discussed on the podcast. 

“One of the books we read, Smoke Signals, is all about the socio-political history of cannabis,” Smith says. But all the reads aren't about weed. Other books include My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi, and The Illusion of Money by Kyle Cease.

Interlocking Parts: Hi Potent C and Dyelow's "War Medicine" highlights the KeepItG Records collective's creative bond

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Hi Potent C & Dyelow, War Medicine

Hi Potent C (left) and Dyelow at WCBN-FM. Photo by Herb Read.

The Ypsi-Arbor hip-hop collective KeepItG Records isn't just a rap crew with a tight handle. The various MCs, producers, musicians, and filmmakers treat KeepItG like a band, with scheduled practices, interlocking their skills and lifting each other up to create audio and visual art.

"The entire KeepItG Records meets and rehearses weekly, and each individual sets up their personal studio time around what’s going on for them at the time being," said rapper Hi Potent C, who has a new album, War Medicine, with KeepItG producer Dyelow. "A lot of the music gets made on the spot, but everyone is always cooking up something on their own time, too. For this specific project, we did a lot of the outlining in person in order to make sure we were sticking to the theme and storyline. From there it made it easier to fill in the blanks separately because we both knew what was needed and expected."

War Medicine is a loose concept record that takes some cues from Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and Prodigy’s 2017 LP, Hegelian Dialectic (The Book of Revelation). Lamar's album recounts his rough teenage years in Compton and Progidy's record is named after the philosophical model that posits thesis, antithesis, then synthesis -- or problem, reaction, solution -- is the way to determine "truth" or "the way."

"The personal ins and outs of living and not only the 'good side,'" is how Hi Potent C describes War Medicine's theme. "At the same time, keeping familiarity with people by showing them how to keep your head up no matter how unfavorable things might be going, because we all need that motivation from time to time."

Ann Arbor author Harry Dolan leads readers on a high-speed chase across the United States in his new thriller, "The Good Killer" 

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Harry Dolan, The Good Killer

Author Harry Dolan’s latest novel is different from his earlier novels. 

The Good Killer is more of a thriller than a traditional murder mystery.

And that’s not a bad thing. 

According to the 53-year-old Ann Arbor author, it was the best thing about writing this book. 

“The central character is not a detective who’s trying to get at the truth,” explained Dolan. “There are crimes that take place, and there are secrets that are revealed at different points in the book, but it’s not structured as a mystery. It was interesting to see if I could write a different kind of story. I hope that the novel works as pure entertainment. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s a book about love and loyalty. It’s about characters searching for redemption.”

In The Good Killer, published by Mysterious Press, former soldier Sean Tennant and his significant other Molly Winter are a couple living under the radar in Texas. One day while Molly is at a yoga retreat in Montana that allows no communication with the outside world (cell phones are confiscated), Sean is a shopping mall when Henry Alan Keen snaps and shoots everybody in sight. Before the body count can rise, Sean stops Keen and helps the shooting victims. 

Ann Arbor-raised Adam Falkner returns with his new poetry collection, "The Willies," and a better sense of his authentic self

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Adam Falkner, The Willies

Adam Falkner probes the paradox of how hard it is to be yourself sometimes in his new poetry collection, The Willies. One of the poems, “Let’s Get One Thing Halfway Straight,” exposes this emotional labor in the following lines:

                        The not-so-funny thing about spending a 

life proving you aren’t something is that any story that isn’t

the story is survival or more like a brick for laying until the

wall is high enough that you’re safe inside and you wake up

and say whoops whose house is this who did I hurt to get

here and is it too late to call for help.

The real risk lies not in being yourself but rather in suppressing yourself based on people’s opinions or your perceptions of how you’re supposed to be. Falkner finds this identity issue to be a common experience to which many readers relate and also one that is very personal to his life.

“There’s something deeply universal about the idea of being closeted and longing for something bigger than this version of yourself," Falkner said. "That fear associated with who we might become if we don’t ask ourselves who we want to become is a very real thing for everyone.”

Phil Christman traverses time, politics, and culture in his new nonfiction essay collection, "Midwest Futures"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Phil Christman, Midwest Futures

What words come to mind when you think of the Midwest?

You may think about its geography, the middleness, or its position and moniker as the heartland with farming and small towns.

You might look at a map to see the 12 Midwestern states (from east to west): Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Perhaps you reflect on its seeming representativeness of American life. Or you study its history containing the displacement of indigenous peoples, manufacturing, and struggling economies.

Myriad ways, even contradictory ones, coincide to describe and understand the Midwest. Writer Phil Christman navigates them in his new book, Midwest Futures, a wide-ranging set of 36 brief essays organized in six sections. Part criticism and part descriptive essay, this nonfiction collection likewise exists as many things at once and navigates assorted perceptions, politics, history, literature, cultures, and pop culture of the Midwest.

Beach Daisy's haunting music blooms with discontent on its debut EP

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Beach Daisy

Beach Daisy’s Zach Moorhaus, Samantha Steinbacher, Andrew Walsh, and Brandon Sams. Photo by Miles Marie of Nomadic Madam.

Despite the summery name Beach Daisy, the music by this Ann Arbor alt-pop quartet is anything but sunshine on its debut EP, Something They Can’t Take AwayIt features seven haunting tracks about isolation, fractured relationships, and hopeful tomorrows.

“There’s a theme in a lot of them of loneliness and emotional solitude, and the final track on the EP is a response to a lot of those feelings,” said Beach Daisy guitarist-vocalist Zach Moorhaus.

As Beach Daisy, Moorhaus and bandmates Samantha Steinbacher (vocals, keys), Brandon Sams (drums), and Andrew Walsh (bass) tackle a spectrum of challenging emotions ranging from self-doubt to frustration to despair. In a sense, the band’s 30-minute EP eloquently reflects the ongoing struggle people face well into adulthood.

“With this EP, we really honed in and tried to make it cohesive. We tried to make a group of songs that refined our sound a little bit,” Steinbacher said.  

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre finds the character-driven "Proof" a good fit on its Second Stage

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Proof

Theater is sometimes about spectacle: chandeliers that crash before our eyes, ocean liners that seem to sail across a stage, or bloody battles at a Paris barricade.

Alex Duncan was interested in a different kind of theater when she suggested directing David Auburn’s Proof for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Second Stage. The play’s intimate drama of a troubled young woman and her relationships seemed right for the Civic’s small studio theater and Duncan’s minimalist approach.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “The language is almost poetic. I’ve always liked dialogue and character-driven things as opposed to, I guess, a little more flash going on. It’s fun digging into the language and working with the characters and figuring out what the actors are going to bring to it and blend that with what I see in the show.”

Duncan, who graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a drama major, directed a Main Stage Civic Theatre production of Arsenic and Old Lace last year and when applications went out for production ideas this year, she proposed Proof. It wasn’t selected for the Main Stage, but in the second round of interviews it was picked for Second Stage.