Most of us know Megan Mullally as boozy, unapologetically solipsistic Karen Walker on Will & Grace, and also perhaps as Parks & Recreation star Nick Offerman’s real-life partner, but not as a former dancer and Broadway performer.
This is likely why you’d be surprised to learn that Mullally, in recent years, has teamed up with another multi-talented artist, Stephanie Hunt (who played lesbian bass-player Devin on Friday Night Lights), to form a music duo called Nancy And Beth, which will perform at The Ark on Monday, April 23.
Where did the arbitrary names Nancy And Beth come from (complete with a capitalized And)? The answer will tell you a great deal about the two women’s soulmate-like friendship.
“The ether,” said Mullally.
“I was going to say ‘the ether’!” cried Hunt.
Fittingly, Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, now being staged by Kickshaw Theatre at Ann Arbor’s trustArt Studios, starts in a parochial school’s infirmary, where a deep, lasting friendship takes root between a girl and a boy who recognize in each other a common compulsion toward self-destruction.
The boy, Doug (Michael Lopetrone), is a reckless, thrill-seeking daredevil, while the girl, Kayleen (Dani Cochrane), suffers from stomach problems and later develops a serious cutting habit. The 80-minute play shows glimpses of these two characters at several different ages, between 8 and 38, but it jumps around in time, inviting us to piece together the puzzle of Doug and Kayleen’s intense connection by shifting from childhood to adulthood and back again.
It feels a bit like director/choreographer Linda Goodrich, a professor in U-M’s musical theater department, has long had a date with destiny regarding the 1937 British musical Me and My Girl.
For although the show had long been one of Britain’s biggest home-grown stage musical hits, it didn’t make its Broadway debut until 1986 -- the same year Goodrich moved to New York.
“I remember seeing it on a marquee, but I never did see it,” said Goodrich. “In fact, I’d never seen it on stage before we started rehearsals. I’d always been familiar with the music and been curious about the show, but it just never crossed my path again.”
Historical events, when presented as a series of statistics and dates, have far less impact on us than they do when integrated into a human story.
This is why, of course, history is the backdrop for so many movies, plays, television shows, and novels. These entertainments let us briefly experience what it was like to be living when a specific historical moment was unfolding around us. And most recently, in our own backyard, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riots/Rebellion -- depending on who’s telling the story -- spawned a number of creative works that helped us revisit this pivotal moment in the Motor City’s history.
University of Michigan graduate (and Detroit native) Dominique Morisseau got a bit of a jump on things, premiering her play, Detroit ’67, in New York in 2013. The drama -- now being staged by Eastern Michigan University’s Theater Department -- won the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, and ended up being the first in a Morisseau-penned trilogy focused on Detroit’s past. (Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew were the second and third.)
It’s amazing how, when a brilliant script is masterfully executed, three and a half hours can seem to pass in the blink of an eye.
Yet that’s the experience you’ll have if you’re lucky enough to catch the University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches -- which is so terrific that it’ll remind you all over again why the play has earned its status as a timeless masterpiece.
Nervous Breakthrough: Ann Arbor novelist Camille Pagán's "Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties" explores loss & change
Ann Arbor-based novelist Camille Pagán (Forever Is the Worst Long Time, Life and Other Near Death Experiences) was in the midst of writing a book that wasn’t going anywhere when she had an unnerving grocery-store experience.
“This guy, a college kid ... bumped into me and didn’t even look at me or say anything,” said Pagán, who also noted that on other occasions while out shopping, she’d observed “when a cashier would talk to and make conversation with a middle-aged man but then not talk to the middle-aged woman who was next in line. This seemed to me to really be saying something about our society and how we view and treat women as they age.”
Taking a beloved hit movie and transforming it into a stage musical is standard practice these days. One look at current Broadway listings -- Aladdin, Anastasia, Frozen, the soon-to-open Mean Girls, and Waitress, to name a few -- proves how often the stage artists are borrowing from the screen.
But of course, not every translation works.
What made School of Rock -- the youth version of which is now being staged at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- a bona fide hit (and a Tony Award nominee) instead of a B-side flop?
Once you learn that someone has an “adventure tiki room” in his own home -- well, let’s just say it’s not so surprising to learn this same person was inspired to direct an Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of Nell Benjamin’s comedy The Explorers Club.
“(My adventure tiki room) is very empty right now,” said Brodie Brockie. “Pretty much everything is on the stage.”
The Arthur Miller Theatre’s stage, to be exact, where this weekend audiences will be transported to an exotic gathering spot for male adventurers in 1879 London. The Explorers Club, which had its Off-Broadway premiere in 2013, tells the story of what happens when a gutsy female explorer, Phyllida Spotte-Hume, crashes the club, with a non-English-speaking tribesman from a “lost city” in tow.
“Tap Your Troubles Away” isn’t one of the songs featured in the screwball musical comedy Anything Goes, but it’s nonetheless what popped into my head upon leaving Dexter’s Encore Theatre on Sunday.
Why? Because this silly confection of a Depression Era, vaudeville-infused musical, jam-packed with wordplay and witty Cole Porter tunes, offers a pleasurable, two and a half hour escape from our increasingly stressful world.
Originally staged in 1934, with a new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman (original book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse), Anything Goes tells the story of Wall Street broker and ladies’ man Billy Crocker (Sebastian Gerstner), who stows away on his boss’ cruise liner upon spotting the woman he truly loves, heiress Hope Harcourt (Emily Hadick), on board with her British fiancee, Lord Evelyn Oakley (David Moan). Hope’s family suffered great losses during the Crash of ’29, so her engagement is more pragmatic than romantic, and her heart secretly belongs to Billy. Meanwhile, brassy nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Olivia Hernandez) only has eyes for Billy, too, but over time, an unlikely friendship grows between her and Oakley.
Oh, and there’s a scheming, wisecracking gangster-in-hiding (Moonface Martin, played by Dan Morrison) and his moll (Erma, played by Elizabeth Jaffe) because isn’t there always? Some featured Porter songs in the show (besides the title number) include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”
The latter number is one of the production’s best and most extensive showcases for Rachel Constantino’s joyous choreography, the other being the first act's energizing closer, “Anything Goes” -- which, amazingly, winks at one of the biggest dance men of the show’s era, Busby Berkeley, in its patterns and formations, despite the Encore’s relatively tight space limitations.
But the big, splashy, “tap-gasm” (my term) numbers weren’t the production’s only highlights. “The Gypsy in Me” comes off as both hilarious and sexy, with Moan and Hernandez turning up the fizzy flirtation factor through Constantino’s cheekily sensual choreography; “Buddie, Beware” has Jaffe literally rolling in men; and in “Friendship,” Hernandez and Morrison break the fourth wall by acknowledging that they can’t keep musical director Tyler Driskill vamping forever while they neurotically commiserate and kvetch about various things.
These moments epitomize the Encore production’s polished, sophisticated breeziness, as established by director Thalia Schramm, who keeps the pace clicking without ever making the scenes feel rushed. Plus, Schramm subtly, wisely downplays the culturally cringey parts of the show -- namely the often-exaggerated depiction of a reformed Chinese gambler -- while still honoring the script. Now, how one man’s outfit comes to disguise two characters, well, that’s the kind of musical theater math you have to just roll with.
Driskill’s seven-person orchestra delivers Porter’s glamorous score with panache, and the ensemble sounds divine. Tyler Chinn’s lighting design helps bring out the romance and heat of certain numbers, while Kristen Gribbin’s versatile sets, paired with Anne Donevan’s props, help to visually transport us to the SS American while also allowing for seamless, quick transitions. Finally, Sharon Larkey Urick’s handsome costumes manage to be bewitchingly sexy without being tacky, with Hernandez sporting the production’s most gorgeous gowns.
But Urick’s dresses are only one reason it’s hard to pull your eyes from Hernandez whenever she’s on stage. The charismatic actress commands the stage with a winning charm, and her knockout vocals have an effortlessness that’s only achieved through hard work and discipline. Gerstner is a delightful, graceful, and appealing leading man, and Morrisson and Jaffe have a ball with their deliciously cartoonish supporting roles. One of the most impressive leaps, though, is achieved by Moan, who takes the stuffy straight man role and renders it hysterical by seizing upon every opportunity -- like Oakley’s fascination with American colloquialisms, for instance, or his penchant for dancing around in a short robe and sock garters (courtesy of Urick) -- to wring humor from the character, and thus make Oakley more interesting.
Of course, there’s no mistaking that Anything Goes is a show built around the music, not the other way around; and with its absurd plot, cornball humor, and broad characters, the musical is more about making audiences feel good for a couple of hours than it is about making them feel much of anything else.
But these days, I’ll happily take that.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
"Anything Goes" runs through Dec. 23 at The Encore Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Showtimes: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Visit theencoretheatre.org for tickets and more info.
“Resist” is not only a rallying cry of our political times; it was the seed of Ann Arbor-based playwright David Wells (“Irrational,” “Brill”) latest world premiere play at Theatre Nova.
Resisting, which runs Oct. 27-Nov. 19, grew out of a news story Wells read about what’s called “broken windows policing.” Born in New York City in the ‘90s, “It’s essentially a zero-tolerance approach, that was combined with ‘stop and frisk,’” said Wells. “(Broken Windows) started with a scholarly paper that suggested that ... if one window in a building is broken, and it’s not fixed immediately, all of them will be broken. ... So the police were compelled to start ticketing or arresting people for every little infraction, no matter how small -- whether it’s jumping a turnstile, or jaywalking, or spitting in public. This led to a more antagonistic relationship between the police and the citizens they were supposed to serve. And these policies also only seemed to be applied in low-income neighborhoods.”