John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a great American classic.
It is set in a specific time, the Great Depression of the 1930s; specific places, the Dust Bowl ravaged southwest and the fertile promised land of California; and a specific group of people, the migrant Joad family of Oklahoma, one of many families looked down upon as ignorant Okies, traveling with hope for a better life. Yet the story continues to resonate as migrants make their way from Central America to the United States border and from Syria and North Africa to the shores of Europe in search of justice, peace and a chance for that better life.
The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama is presenting a production of Frank Galati’s critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel.
“It seemed timely, relevant, a great American tragedy, a great novel,” said production director Gillian Eaton, an award-winning actress, director, and U-M faculty member.
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.
Part two of Theatre Nova’s semi-annual Michigan Playwrights Festival has an added evening that gives more opportunities to shine the spotlight on new playwrights. In addition to staged readings of four full length plays, the festival will set aside an evening for the presentation of six 10-minute plays.
The Michigan Playwrights Festival is in its fifth season, part of Theatre Nova’s focus on new plays and playwrights. Twice a year, a committee selects four plays for presentations in staged readings. The festival will present a play each night Oct. 24-27. The Evening of 10-Minute Plays will be presented Oct. 23.
The four plays selected for the regular festival are The Lion’s Share by Catherine Zudak, Dear Camp by Lisa MacDonald, Silo Tree by Sam Collier, and Blight by R.D. Wakeman.
Playwright Sarah Elisabeth Brown is coordinating the evening of 10-minute plays for Theatre Nova.
“The evening is new to the festival and comes out of a group I started in conjunction with Theatre Nova about a year ago called the Nova Lab, which is designed as a resource to playwrights of all levels who would like to develop their craft,” Brown said in an email interview. “Our signature event is called Prompts for Playwrights and we meet on Sunday evenings when the theater is dark.”
“I was in another play at Civic Theatre and everyone was talking about how there weren’t a lot of great plays for older actors,” she said. “I thought I can help with that and I remembered My Three Angels, which has some very fine parts for older, experienced actors.”
She was also looking for a play that would appeal to a diverse audience.
“I chose this play because it’s what I would call a good family comedy,” she said. “By that I mean not Leave It to Beaver or something like that, not for tiny kids. But something that the whole family can enjoy. It’s not too salacious or suggestive or anything like that. It’s something you can bring older kids to.”
She said that’s important for the future of live theater.
It is the very model of a modern musical comedy.
The University of Michigan Department of Music’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ever-popular The Pirates of Penzance moves along faster than the celebrated major-general’s patter song. The tiny Lydia Mendelssohn stage is alive with color, movement, and music.
Director Vincent J. Cardinal has chosen the 1980 Joseph Papp New York version of Penzance with more swashbuckling, dancing and some reinterpretation of Sullivan’s music. That production starred Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. U-M’s production is filled to overflowing with musical theater stars of the future.
On Broadway in 1929, the Marx Brothers had them rolling in the aisles with Animal Crackers, Louis Armstrong was singing and playing a driving trumpet in “Hot Chocolates,” William Gillette was back for another turn at Sherlock Holmes, and Cole Porter had his first big hit with “Fifty Million Frenchmen.”
On a more serious note, Porgy by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward debuted and Eugene O’Neill Strange Interlude starring Lynn Fontanne was a big draw.
In Ann Arbor, a group with a passion for theater started a private club that began meeting to study and perform script readings. That passion is still glowing as the club that became the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre celebrates its 90th anniversary.
“That was sort of an outlet for people who wanted to get involved in theater but weren’t part of the university, because there wasn’t a community outlet at that time,” said Alexandra Berneis, Civic Theatre executive director. “They met at homes and in basements and things like that. They read plays, thinking about what they would do about creating an artistic outlet for people.”
Life is an ever swirling dance in Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s satirical romance Sense and Sensibility.
Director Priscilla Lindsay keeps her cast, the scenery, the furnishings and the barrage of witty bon mots and nasty comments in constant motion in the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama production of Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility.
Reimagining Austen’s book as a dance is a way of both condensing it to a workable length and giving it a theatrical motion that helps capture the often uneasy and swiftly changing fortunes of middle-class England in the early 1800s.
Austen is romance, subtle wit, keen observation of social manners and, also, an early feminist outrage at what women had to do have a socially acceptable life.
Theatre Nova does it again with an outstanding production of a play that is both an intimate family drama and a relevant piece of social commentary.
Joshua Harmon’s Admissions is a precise, nuanced, and often funny take on the affirmative action debate and how it plays out in the real world. As the University of Michigan has long been at the center of the debate on affirmative action, the play has a special interest for Ann Arbor. Harmon doesn’t take sides; instead, he examines the tensions, the presumptions of white privilege and the hypocrisies of those with the best of intentions.
Sherri Rosen-Mason is the admissions officer for Hillcrest, an elite prep school in New Hampshire. Her husband Bill Mason is the school principal. They are white, well educated, politically liberal, and dedicated to making their school more racially and ethnically diverse.
But what happens when their ideals and good intentions suddenly conflict with the ambitions of their talented, intelligent son who wants to go to Yale.
The funny, punny title of Urinetown: The Musical may wrinkle some noses, but the show has been a smash hit off and on Broadway and at theaters across the United States since it opened in New York in 2001. On Sept. 12, the pee-centered satire will kick off the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s 90th anniversary year.
“Urinetown: The Musical is the most important musical of the 21st Century with the worst title,” said Rob Roy in an email interview. “In fact, it’s that meta approach to the subject matter that makes it even more relevant to the audience. One is never allowed to just sit and be entertained. Authors Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman specifically brought Bertolt Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt to the show to force the audience to pay attention to the vital subject matter: our way of life is unsustainable.”
Verfremdungseffekt is a German word for a distancing technique used in theater and film to prevent an audience from getting too wrapped up in the story instead of bringing a critical mind to the ideas being explored.
This meta-comedy is a shrapnel satire aiming for big capitalism and populism, bungling government bureaucracy and corrupt business with a format and musical score that lampoons the very idea of serious-minded musical entertainment, including the seminal work of Brecht and his musical collaborator Kurt Weill on The Threepenny Opera. Urinetown was a critical as well as popular success, winning three Tony Awards and many other honors.
Playwright Reina Hardy has a lot on her mind: the Big Bang Theory, the course of true love, the waxing and waning of sexual passion, personality disruptions caused by social media, the difficulty of making contact at a party when you’re socially awkward, and so much more.
These interests all come incongruously together in her play Stargazers, now having its Michigan premiere at Theatre Nova.
Three talented actors under the direction of David Wolber work hard to bring credibility to their characters and find the humor and a bit of poetry in Hardy’s cosmic drama. The play is a bit too artsy, the metaphors too forced, and the plot too thin. But the actors are engaging and in touch with the characters they play.