Singer/songwriter [http://timothymonger.com|Timothy Monger]'s career peaked in middle school.
Despite three albums during a decade-plus run with the acclaimed folk-rock band [http://www.aadl.org/catalog/search/author/Great%2BLakes%2BMyth%2BSociet…|Great Lakes Myth Society] and a solo career that has also produced three records, including the new Amber Lantern, Monger said the loudest cheers he's ever received was when his middle school band, All the Young Dudes, rocked his former elementary.
Perhaps [https://www.facebook.com/timothymonger|Monger's] fans will take that as a challenge and make some noise when he celebrates the release of Amber Lantern at The Ark on Wednesday, February 8 at 8 pm. ([http://www.aadl.org/catalog/search/author/Starling%2BElectric%2B%2528Mu…|Caleb Dillon] of [https://starlingelectric.bandcamp.com|Starling Electric] will open.) The album is slightly more rock-oriented than his past works, but Monger also made a conscious decision to set aside his guitar at times and experiment with instruments outside his wheelhouse, such as an organ, a hurdy-gurdy, and a [http://www.aadl.org/catalog/record/1411904|Pocket Piano synth], which he checked out from this library's [http://www.aadl.org/musictools|Music Tools] collection.
Monger, who grew up in Brighton and lives in Saline, recently answered questions about his new songs, crowdfunding rewards, never finishing Moby Dick, and the world's greatest elementary school rock concert.
Directing the Burns Park Players’ annual stage musical, particularly for the first time, comes with unique challenges.
“Sometimes an actor goes, ‘I’m on call for heart surgery. I may have to leave because of that,’” said Matt Kunkel, who’s at the helm of BPP’s upcoming production of Shrek. “And it’s like, they all put in more work [in rehearsal] because they don’t know when they might have to go, so rather than giving 100 percent, they put in 125 or 200 percent. And when they’re not there, they’ll meet with someone the next day to learn everything they missed. It’s a very professional group. They’re incredibly hard workers.”
These performers aren’t professional actors, of course. They’re Burns Park students, parents, teachers, staff, and neighbors who come together, working both on stage and behind the scenes, to put on a big musical each winter. Money raised by the production goes to support arts programs in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
Bestselling author Colson Whitehead spoke in Ann Arbor on January 12 as part of U-M’s bicentennial celebration theme semester, but it wasn’t his first visit to Treetown. Apparently, in 2001, Whitehead gave a reading at Borders to “about five people,” on a night when the Red Wings were playing for the Stanley Cup.
“It seemed like a good excuse,” said Whitehead with a shrug –- this time, to a near-capacity crowd packed into Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.
Whitehead now has many more published books and years of experience under his belt, of course. But his mainstream profile spiked most dramatically in the last few months, when the publication date of his newest novel, The Underground Railroad, got bumped up a month (from September to August) due to it being named an Oprah’s Book Club selection -- and nothing makes an author’s career explode quite like receiving Oprah’s imprimatur.
That’s far from Railroad’s only distinction, though. The novel also won the National Book Award for fiction and was named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, GQ, Newsday, and more.
If the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra’s annual Mozart Birthday Bash concert was a person, he could legally, for the first time, buy an alcoholic beverage this year to celebrate.
So let’s collectively raise a toast this local cultural tradition, born shortly before conductor Arie Lipsky first took over A2SO’s podium in 2000.
“It seems like Mozart is almost everybody’s favorite composer," Lipsky said, "so we just decided to celebrate him every year."
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria on January 27, 1756 -- that's 261 years ago, but who’s counting? -- and because he wrote more than 600 works in his too-short life (he died in 1791 at age 35), A2SO’s annual showcase never has to worry about repeating itself.
In fact, this year, the first work in this year’s program is Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4, “Mozartiana,” wherein Tchaikovsky built original orchestrations around four piano pieces by Mozart.
Bestselling author Colm Toibin’s November 2016 reading/talk in Ann Arbor -- part of the U-M’s fantastic Zell Visiting Writers Series -- drew a big enough crowd to not only fill all the 185 seats in UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium, but also the wall end of both side aisles and the back wall.
Toibin, best known for his novel Brooklyn, the basis for an Oscar-nominated film, was one part of ZVWS’s star-studded lineup for fall 2016, which also included Everything I Never Told You author (and U-M MFA program grad) Celeste Ng and Tony Award-winning playwright/actress and Michigan native Lisa Kron (Fun Home).
“That was a large turnout for one of our readings, but not unprecedented,” said Douglas Trevor, director of U-M’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, in reference to Toibin's event.
With big and/or rising literary stars on the roster, and increasing community awareness of the series, Trevor and HZWP assistant director Maya West (who oversees the reading series) should probably expect more full houses in future.
“Our list to date is pretty incredible,” said Trevor. “We really hope and strive to provide more opportunities for literary engagement in Southeast Michigan.”
“And we’ve cast a wider net with our marketing, especially in the last year or two,” said West, who noted that [http://www.literatibookstore.com/|Literati] has partnered with the series to be the bookseller on-site while also including the readings on the indie bookstore’s event calendar.
The new semester’s lineup includes:
Organizing 50 people to be part of a show is never easy. But organizing 50 comedians?
“It’s cuckoo,” said Shelly Smith, who programs and hosts Ann Arbor’s [http://www.theark.org/shows-events/2016/jan/04/50-first-jokes|50 First Jokes] show at The Ark, happening Tuesday, January 3 at 7:30 p.m. “It’s completely ridiculous.”
But that’s part of the fun, of course.
The show was the brainchild of comedian John F. O’Donnell, whom Smith met as part of the Ann Arbor comedy scene in the early 2000s. When O’Donnell moved back to New York more than a decade ago, he had the idea to gather comedians in Brooklyn to deliver their first new joke of the year.
“The first show was not exactly super-organized,” said Smith.
Now, though, 50 First Jokes has taken root in 10 different cities across the country, and three years ago, at O’Donnell’s urging, Smith brought the annual tradition to Ann Arbor. The show combines comedians of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels -- from headliners to those now earning their stripes -- and seats 25 at a time on stage, where they have a maximum of two minutes to lay their first joke of 2017 on the crowd.
“It goes really fast,” said Smith. “It’s like, name, joke, name, joke, name, joke. The energy is crazy, but it’s so fun.”
Mounting new musicals that haven’t been locally staged before is quickly becoming Ron Baumanis’ calling card.
“It’s one of the things I love to do,” Baumanis said.
In January 2015, for example, Baumanis directed an Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of the stage musical Bonnie & Clyde,” which won over audiences so much that Baumanis went on to stage the same musical at Dexter’s Encore Theatre and Wyandotte’s Downriver Actors Guild. Now, Baumanis’ company, [http://www.annarbormusicaltheaterworks.com|Ann Arbor Musical Theater Works], will present the regional premiere of the stage musical adaptation of Love Story at Ann Arbor’s Children’s Creative Center from January 5-15.
Based on the 1970 bestselling novel by Erich Segal -- with a book by Stephen Clark, music by Howard Goodall, and lyrics by Stephen Clark and Goodall -- Love Story tells the story of a young man (Oliver) from a wealthy East Coast family who falls in love with a poor young pianist (Jenny) of Italian descent. Against his father’s wishes, Oliver marries Jenny, so then he must find his way in the world without his family’s wealth. He goes to law school while Jenny works as a teacher, but when bad news arrives, both Oliver and Jenny have no choice but to alter their plans for the future.
“The musical is based more on the book than the  movie, which kind of ‘60s-ized’ it,” said Baumanis. “It takes a lot of that stuff out of it and goes back to the basics of the story.”
Nationally known film critic Owen Gleiberman appeared in his hometown -- specifically, the University of Michigan’s Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery -- on the evening of December 7 to talk about his book, Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ann Arbor plays a key supporting role in Gleiberman’s story. Gleiberman moved to Treetown with his family when he was about five, and he grew up during the '60s and '70s -- which happened to be the heyday for U-M’s campus film societies. Gleiberman wrote about film while a student at Pioneer High, and he continued to do so for The Michigan Daily as a college student.
“I don’t know if i would have ever wanted to become a film critic, or a film buff, or everything this book is about if it hadn’t been for Ann Arbor, and the way this place kind of nurtured me,” Gleiberman said before reading a passage from his book on Wednesday night.
But in addition to chronicling his descent into movie madness, Movie Freak also, Gleiberman noted, turned out to be a kind of valentine to analog culture.
One of my favorite moments in Friday’s preview performance of Theatre Nova’s new Sugar Plum Panto was unscripted.
Actress Sarah Briggs asked the crowd what was on their Christmas lists this year. When a man jokingly answered, “A girlfriend,” Briggs cocked her head, pursed her lips, made a small “go get ’em” gesture, and said in a low, sympathetic voice, “Hang in there, Tiger.”
Pantos, of course, are a longstanding British holiday tradition, but they’ve also recently taken root at Theatre Nova, beginning with last year’s An Almost British Christmas. Pantos take a familiar children’s story and give it several silly twists and updates, integrating physical comedy and childish humor with more sophisticated, cheeky, and timely jokes for adults, thus drawing families all together for a night at the theater. Panto audience members are encouraged to boo and hiss when the villains appear, and candy is thrown to the kids in the crowd a few times, making for a loose, chaotic-but-fun atmosphere.
I’m tempted to say that it was standing room only at bestselling Irish author Colm Tóibín’s Thursday night reading – part of [https://lsa.umich.edu/writers/news-and-events/readings-and-events/zell-…|U-M’s Zell Visiting Writers Series] – at UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium.
But that seems not quite accurate, since many attendees who didn’t arrive in time to grab one of the venue’s 185 seats instead settled themselves on the floor of both side aisles, as well as the back wall.
Yes, the place was packed, but those who carved out a space for themselves got to hear Tóibín read from his novels [b:1327527|Brooklyn] and [b:1455678|Nora Webster] while also offering additional commentary and information.
While reading sections from Brooklyn – the basis for a [b:1490195|film] that earned three major Oscar nominations (including best picture) in 2016 – Tóibín noted, “One of the interesting things is that, the earliest recordings we have of Irish traditional music mainly come from America. The best players, best fiddlers, best singers, best accordion players all came from the West of Ireland, which of course is the poorest part of the country. There were no recording studios, so they went to New York or Chicago, and people rented them recording studios by the hour.”
Many of these Irish musicians would work as manual laborers, too, so they often had a foot in two different worlds. Tóibín cited Joe Heaney specifically, calling him the greatest singer of his generation in Ireland.
“There’s a photo of him in a pub in Dublin, where tradition music is played,” said Tóibín. “There were these Americans from New York who were visiting Dublin and saw the photograph on the wall of this pub, and they said, ‘That’s our doorman, Joe!’ Yeah, that’s our singer, Joe.”
Regarding Nora Webster, Tóibín talked about how he’d abandoned it to work on Brooklyn, and why he struggled with it so.
“Part of the problem was, so much of the book Nora Webster comes from memory, and that memory … has no shape until you shape it,” said Tóibín. “And therefore, [I was always] trying to think, ‘What’s this thing or that thing that happened? Would it be interesting in a book, or just interesting to me, for reasons of my own? What should I leave out? What should I put in? What scene will work dramatically, and what won’t? It took much longer than writing a novel … where you imagine somebody else, some other life, some set of rules and specific experiences that I hadn’t witnessed.”
One other problem was that the atmosphere of the novel felt more like the 50s than the 60s, so he finally stumbled upon a subtle but time-specific way to root Nora Webster in its appropriate era.
“Some year around this time, I think ’67 or ’68 or ’69, hair dye arrived in town,” said Tóibín. “And you’d call to a friend’s house, and his mother would come to the door, and it was like autumn had come to the door. Her hair would have gone copper color. … And every woman in the town, to a one, fell to this. it was an amazing episode, really.”
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.