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.

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.

Regrets, He's Had a Few: Former Wolverine and NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards is forever "Doing It My Way"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Braylon Edwards' book Doing It My Way

Former University of Michigan All American wide receiver and NFL Pro Bowler Braylon Edwards has a reputation for being outspoken, to say the least. But even so, he had to warm up to the idea of writing Doing It My Way: My Outspoken Life as a Michigan Wolverine, NFL Receiver, and Beyond.

Triumph Books, my publishing company, originally approached me in 2017,” Edwards said. “I had no idea what my book would be about, and to be honest, at the time, the money was laughable. … So we said, ‘We’ll pass.’ And by we, I mean me and my mother. She’s my business manager, so I run everything by her. But as we started telling people that I was presented with this opportunity -- my aunties, my uncles, my cousins, my coaches, my friends, everybody -- I started to think there enough things I’ve gone through in my life that make my story unique.”

This included constantly traveling between two sets of parents as a child; being a “legacy” athlete since Edward’s father, Stan Edwards, played football for Michigan under Bo Schembechler; the ups and downs of Edwards’ football career, both at Michigan and in the NFL; and his struggles off the field, including his battles with drug use, anxiety, and depression.

“It became evident that the book should happen -- that this was something we should definitely sign up for,” Edwards said. “So when [Triumph] came back to us in 2018, I didn’t care so much about the money. It was more about my story out there. … People forget that there’s more to athletes than a helmet, or a golf club, or lacrosse sticks -- especially now, with social media and fantasy sports. It’s like no one cares about athletes anymore. It’s all about, ‘What can you do for me?’”

Edwards wrote Doing It My Way with ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren. And while you might assume that Edwards felt a bit nervous and vulnerable when his highly personal book debuted in September, that’s not the case.

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!”

Joseph Zettelmaier's "Dr. Seward’s Dracula" is a creepy, clever prequel to Bram Stokers' vampire legend

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Dr. Seward's Dracula

Allyson Miko as the Emily the ghost and Jeffrey Shawn Miller as the unstable Dr. Seward in The Penny Seats Theatre Company's production of Dr. Seward's Dracula.

Near the end of Joseph Zettelmaier’s play Dr. Seward’s Dracula -- now being staged by The Penny Seats Theatre Company, at Ann Arbor’s Stone Chalet Inn -- a character observes, “People need their monsters.”

So it seems. For it’s far more comforting and palatable to believe that humans like ourselves simply aren’t capable of committing the very worst acts of violence and depravity.

But we are, of course. And this unnerving truth is precisely what drives Zettelmaier’s unconventional take on the Dracula story.

The Purple Rose Theatre's "Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé" rises to the occasion

PULP THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Souffle at The Purple Rose Theatre

Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

Local Baker Street Irregulars who enjoyed David MacGregor’s 2018 world premiere production of Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre may now revisit the world’s most famous detective in his London flat for yet another all-new case.

MacGregor’s world premiere follow-up, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé, directed by Michelle Mountain, opened this past weekend at the Purple Rose. Fans of Ear will not only recognize the same actors playing the show’s primary roles -- nice bit of continuity, that -- but also Bartley H. Bauer’s sumptuous, award-winning set, which has been gloriously resurrected.

Just as Ear wove together cases involving Victorian-era celebrities Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde -- I believe I likened it to a lofty, arts-centric Love Boat episode -- Soufflé does the same, this time bringing both world-renowned chef Auguste Escoffier (Tom Whalen) and Prince of Wales Albert Edward (David Bendena) to 221B Baker Street.

Encore Theatre's production of the Tony-winning "Fun Home" passes the test

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's production of Fun House

Sarah Stevens as Big Alison in Encore Theatre's production of Fun Home. Photo by Michele Anliker.

When I first read Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home -- the basis for a Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, now on stage at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- I immediately sent copies of the book out to my three closest girlfriends.

It wasn’t Christmas or anyone’s birthday, but I couldn’t contain myself. Bechdel’s groundbreaking, bracingly candid, and bittersweet chronicle of a family tragedy gripped me so profoundly that my first, undeniable impulse was to share her story with others.

The stage musical adaptation -- with music by Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics by Michigan’s own Lisa Kron -- necessarily pares Bechdel’s tale down to its essentials, but it’s no less poignant while depicting Bechdel’s gleeful, college-age “coming out” and, shortly thereafter, her closeted father’s sudden suicide.

At Encore, Sarah B. Stevens plays the always-on-stage, present-day version of Bechdel, who’s struggling to sketch out and narrate her family’s history. (The “Fun Home” of the title is the nickname Alison and her younger brothers had as kids for the funeral home that has long been the Bechdels’ “family business.”) As she draws, she remembers various moments from her childhood and college days as they play out in front of her, until she finally can’t resist inserting her present-day self into the last late-night drive she ever took with her father (Daniel C. Cooney), urging herself to say something that will alter the course of what’s about to happen.

Theatre Nova’s "The How and the Why" explores radical and exciting ideas

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Theatre Nova's production of The How and the Why

L to R: Diane Hill as Zelda and Sayre Fox as Rachel in The How and the Why by Sarah Treem at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Golden Record Media Company.

It’s a beautiful thing when a play not only passes the Bechdel test with flying colors but offers an intellectually satisfying evening of theater, too.

For Theatre Nova’s production of Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why focuses entirely on the charged conversations between two women: tenured evolutionary biologist Zelda Kahn (Diane Hill) and the daughter she gave up for adoption, post-doc student Rachel Hardemann (Sayre Fox). 

As they meet for the first time, Zelda’s department is preparing to host an important conference. When Rachel reveals the radical theory she’s developed concerning the “why” of human female menstruation -- that it acts as a kind of physiological defense mechanism -- Zelda offers her the chance to present her ideas at the conference. When things don’t go well, Rachel’s left to wonder: Did Zelda set her up to fail out of professional jealousy? Or did Zelda just naively give Rachel an opportunity that she and her theory weren’t quite ready for?

Chamber of Secrets: Purple Rose Theatre's "Never Not Once" pulls no punches as it explores a family's difficult history

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Never Not Once at Purple Rose Theatre

Michelle Mountain (Allison), Caitlin Cavannaugh (Eleanor), Jeremy Kucharek (Rob), and Casaundra Freeman (Nadine) star in Carey Crim’s grab-you-by-the-lapels drama Never Not Once. Photos by Sean Carter Photography.

We often hear that people shouldn’t be permanently defined by their worst decision or act. But on the other end of that equation, all too often, are men and women who are irrevocably shaped by the violence committed against them.

Carey Crim’s latest world premiere play at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre, Never Not Once, directed by Guy Sanville, treads rather boldly across this ethical minefield. 

When Rutgers student Eleanor (Caitlin Cavannaugh) comes home unannounced, with boyfriend Rob (Jeremy Kucharek) in tow, and announces to her two moms that she aims to track down her biological father, her birth mother, Allison (Michelle Mountain), balks, insisting that the one night stand that left her pregnant in college was so inconsequential that she never even learned the man’s name. But when Eleanor’s other mom, Nadine (Casaundra Freeman), secretly supplies Eleanor with a possible clue regarding her father’s identity, the search narrows, and Allison is forced to revisit a trauma from her past.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but Never Not Once is an intense 90 minutes of live theater, despite some moments of levity in the early going. It tackles some tough stuff, and for the most part, it doesn’t pull its punches. But then, it can’t afford to. If you’re going to “go there,” as Crim has chosen to do, you’ve got to have the guts to go all in. So don’t go to the Rose expecting to passively sit back and be entertained by Never. It’s more a grab-you-by-the-lapels kind of show.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's "Arsenic and Old Lace" revels in horror and humor

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Original 1941 edition of Arsenic & Old Lace

The first trade edition of Arsenic and Old Lace was published by Random House in 1941.

Arsenic and Old Lace, Joseph Kesselring’s classic dark comedy now being staged by Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, provided director Alexandra Duncan with her first-ever stage role in high school -- though it wasn’t a particularly lively or demanding part.

“I was Adam Hoskins, the dead man in the window seat,” Duncan said.

Sound bizarre?

Welcome to the Brewster family home in Brooklyn, where writer Mortimer Brewster wants to marry the girl next door. Problem is, he’s just learned that his sweet old spinster aunts have been murdering lonely old men with poison-laced elderberry wine; plus, his delusional uncle, who believes he’s Theodore Roosevelt, has been providing graves by digging locks for the Panama Canal in the house’s cellar.