Ann Arbor Civic Theater’s “Almost, Maine” offers 9 emotional small-town snapshots


Almost, Maine

"Look, up in the sky, it's one ofAlmost, Maine's vignette's!"

John Cariani’s Almost, Maine is set in a fictional town so named because it’s so far north that it’s almost in Canada. It’s distant from the urban chatter of Boston or Montreal, but that physical distance also suggests the emotional distance that the play’s characters have to bridge.

“Distance is a big issue in the play,” said Elizabeth Docel, who plays two parts in the production. “The town is distant from everywhere and the play is about the distance between people.”

The Ann Arbor Civic Theater is presenting Cariani’s play March 9-12 at the Arthur Miller Theatre. It’s a play that has won wide support at regional and school theaters for its mix of comedy, drama, and a little magic realism.

“When I first read the play, it was so different from what I usually do,” said director Kat Walsh. “I usually do Shakespeare and works centering on social justice, and I found this play simple, sweet, and quirky.”

As she looked deeper into the play she also found a running theme.

Mystery Summit: Loren Estleman, Doug Allyn, and Laura Joh Rowland at the AADL


Loren Estleman

Loren Estleman is very serious ... about writing good books.

It was a dark and stormy night as the attendees huddled in the library basement to hear three mystery writers talk about their new books. As the first author began to speak, thunder crashed, the lights went out, and a scuffle broke out in the dark. When the lights returned, the entire audience was kidnapped!

OK, I should probably keep my day job and leave the mystery writing to the professionals. Lucky for us, Michigan is the birthplace of some of the best mystery writers in the country and three of them -- Loren Estleman, Doug Allyn, and Laura Joh Rowland -- are appearing at the Ann Arbor District Library's Downtown branch on Friday, March 3.

Stage lights shine brightly on the eager performers in Encore Jr.’s "... Once Upon a Mattress"


Once Upon a Mattress

Kylie Scarpace is Princess Winnifred the Woebegone in "...Once Upon a Mattress." Photo Courtesy of Michele Anliker.

It’s six days before opening night and a group of young singers stand around the lobby of the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter listening intently to musical director Cheryl VanDuzen lead them carefully through an ensemble number from Once Upon a Mattress.

Inside the theater, three actors are working on blocking a bit of stage business, getting used to a set that only became available a couple days before. It will be an intense few days for the young performers in preparation for a March 3 opening night.

For many stars of stage, movies, and television it was in theaters like this that a love of acting began -- in acting camps and after school programs. Thalia Schramm is casting and program director for Encore and directs many adult shows for the company and is the director of the youth theater production. She had worked as a camp counselor up north and “loved working with kids.”

“When I started working at Encore in 2009, when [the company] started, they didn’t have a summer program, so in 2010 I started a summer program, which has grown from four sessions and about 30 kids to 10 sessions and about 200 kids every summer,” she said.

Last year Encore started a winter youth program with a production of Seussical the Musical. The program is open to children up to 18 years old. This year 31 students are participating, ages 7 to 16.

This year’s show is called Getting to Know ... Once Upon a Mattress as a requirement of Rodgers and Hammerstein licensing for junior versions of established adult musicals. The additional intro is taken from the song "Getting to Know You" in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I.

Swing Easy: Tenor Saxophonist Harry Allen at Kerrytown Concert House


Harry Allen

For Harry Allen, it don't mean a thing if you can't look out a window and dream about swing.

When Harry Allen was a sideman for drummer Oliver Jackson on long European tours, Jackson introduced the up-and-coming tenor saxophonist to the local promoter in every city they played. “He would say, ‘Remember this name, you’re going to want him,’” Allen recalls. Thirty years later, some of the same people book Allen regularly.

Now an internationally acclaimed jazz artist, Harry Allen swings into town with his quartet to play the Kerrytown Concert House on Wednesday, March 1. They will perform audience favorites from the Great American Songbook as well as a few new songs Allen recently wrote. Joining him on this date are Chicago-based guitarist Andy Brown and Ann Arbor veterans Paul Keller, bass, and Pete Siers, drums.

Get H.I.P. with Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble at Kerrytown Concert House



Kahil El'Zabar pounds out consciousness-raising rhythms.

After graduating college and spending a year abroad in Ghana, Kahil El'Zabar came home to Chicago excited to tell his dad what he wanted to do with his life.

"I’m gonna play in a badass band," El'Zabar recalled telling him. "No bass, no piano, no guitar, no chromatic chordal instrument to set the tonic sensibility of the music."

His new vision called for a tonal center set by the "various rhythmic impulses" and "harmonic syntax of the music," African influences, and "urban contemporary expression" from his own experience.

"And he says, 'Man, it sounds hip, boy. But you’ll never make a living.'"

A Family Affair: "I'll Be Seeing You" at U-M’s Arthur Miller Theatre


I'll Be Seeing You

Actor John DeMerell plays Charles, father of I'll Be Seeing You playwright David Kiley.

Because nearly 900 letters were exchanged between soldier-journalist Charles Kiley and his fiancee, Billee Gray, during World War II, Ann Arbor’s David Kiley has an amazing window into not only his parents’ courtship, and their lives as young adults, but also what it was like to live in that era, both on the front lines and at home.

For this reason, he collaborated with his sister (Anne Kiley) and brother-in-law (Thomas Pellechia) to edit their 2015 book, Writing the War: Chronicles of a World War II Correspondent. But because Kiley -- director of communication at U-M’s Ross School of Business and publisher/editor-in-chief of the professional theater website -- is passionate about theater, he soon started thinking about how to adapt the material into a stage play.

The resulting show, I’ll Be Seeing You, will have its world premiere at U-M’s Arthur Miller Theatre this weekend, with performances on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. In the show, two actors play Charles and Billee as they write and read each other’s letters; plus, two radio singers perform music from that era, while a radio announcer -- played by Kiley, who’s also making his directing debut -- offers news from the front.

Strings Theory: Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage at The Ark


Guitarists Julian Lage and Chris “Critter” Eldridge have formidable track records in jazz and bluegrass, respectively. Lage has worked with Gary Burton, Fred Hersch, Nels Cline and more. Eldridge is widely known as a member of the innovative Punch Brothers.

So when Lage and Eldridge play as a duo -- on their new album Mount Royal, their 2015 gem Avalon and their 2013 five-track EP Close to Picture -- there’s a whole universe of music open to them, a wide range of shared tastes and enthusiasms.

Playing rare Martin acoustic guitars from 1937 (Eldridge) and 1939 (Lage), they survey the varied lineage of acoustic music and Americana while pursuing their own contemporary aesthetic. The music is improvisational, lyrical, whimsical, textural, and highly virtuosic. While Eldridge sang on much of Avalon, Mount Royal is mainly instrumental, though there are two vocal covers of bluegrass classics and even a reading of one of Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs. We caught up with them shortly before their February 27 gig at The Ark.

The "Plague" Year: Hate Unbound celebrates album debut at Ypsi's Maidstone Theatre


Hate Unbound

Hate Unbound offers a boundless hatred of boundraries.

There’s a whole mess of influences on Hate Unbound’s debut album, Plague, which came out on the Finnish label Inverse Records. Reviewers have mentioned brutal bands (Lamb of God, Gojira, Hatebreed) along with thrashier groups (Exodus) and death metal pioneers (Death) -- but not enough have acknowledged Hate Unbound’s occasional laser-sharp deployment of twin-lead guitars, evoking classic Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy.

“I actually wanted to be KK Downing when I grew up,” said guitarist Daryl Mitchell, naming the ax partner of Glenn Tipton in Judas Priest. (Hate Unbound's other guitarist, William Cundiff, is Mitchell's Tipton.)

But don’t mistake Hate Unbound’s love of twin leads fool you: This southeastern Michigan group, which includes bassist Sean Demura and drummer Franklin "Foot" Hannah, is primarily about pummeling you with riffs, not tickling you with harmonized solos.

You'll be able to have your chest caved in by said riffs when Hate Unbound celebrates the release of Plague at the Maidstone Theatre in Ypsilanti on Saturday, February 18. We talked to Mitchell and vocalist Art Giammara about the Plague year, song meanings, and whether too many influences is too many.

While reading our chat, stream all of Plague at Zero Tolerance Magazine.

No One Thing Without the Other: Dave Douglas Quintet at Kerrytown Concert House


Dave Douglas

Hymns from him: Dave Douglas.

Trumpeter Dave Douglas prepared to play his mom’s funeral by arranging the hand-picked hymns and Bible verses she wrote down on a scrap of paper and gave to him.

“I didn’t do too much to them,” Douglas said, whose jazz can edge toward the avant-garde at times. “I thought these are pretty straight-ahead renditions of these hymns.”

Douglas’ Brass Ecstasy band -- with the New Orleans-type front line of trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba, plus drums -- was the group he picked to play his mother’s chosen hymns at the funeral, with the sung verses handled by the church’s congregation.

“We got to the service and we go through the first chorus,” Douglas said, “and I turned around to hand it to the congregation and they’re all just looking at me like, ‘Whaaat?’ It was way over their heads. We had to totally adapt and have the [church’s] organ player come help out.”

He laughs about the event now, but that was a tumultuous period for Douglas.

Doh! High art and pop art merge in U-M’s head-spinning "Mr. Burns"


Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

Meditating on The Simpsons becomes a balm after a catastropic world event in Mr. Burns.

Shell-shocked people sit around a campfire discussing a favorite episode of TV series. They try to remember each detail to amuse each other and as a distraction from the problems all around them. The world has been thrown into darkness following a worldwide catastrophic event and stories are all that remain.

This is the premise of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, opening February 16 at the University of Michigan’s Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

“It’s a postmodern play, a pastiche of forms and thematically it goes to the heart of what it means to tell stories, why human beings tell stories,” said Daniel Cantor, the play’s director and head of performance for theater at the university’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance. “Why they need stories, why stories evolve and change across time but have different meanings for people in different contexts.”