U-M’s "Passing Strange" follows a rocking journey of discovery

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Passing Strange

Justin Showell stars as the Narrator in U-M's take on the 2008 Tony Award-winning Passing Strange.

In the late 1970s, a young African-American with musical ambitions left his strict religious home in Los Angeles to set out on a journey to discover who he was, what he believed and where he belonged.

Years later, the rock songwriter and musician known as Stew turned his story of self-discovery into the unusual and critically acclaimed musical Passing Strange. The musical, with book and lyrics by Stew, and music by Stew and a former bandmate, Heidi Rodewald, received seven 2008 Tony Award nominations and Stew won the award for best book. Passing Strange also won the Drama Desk Award for outstanding musical. 

His story resonated with those who lived during those years and it resonates still with young audiences, which makes it a perfect vehicle for young actors. The University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre will present Passing Strange Nov. 15-18 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.

It’s the words that are scary in Brass Tack’s "Blithe Spirit"

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Brass Tacks Ensemble's Blithe Spirit

Ghouls, goblins, zombies, and ghosts.

Ooooh scary

Well, not all ghosts are scary.

Take Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. The ghost is mischievous but also charming. What is scary is the sarcasm that the characters hurl back and forth at each other. 

Brass Tacks Ensemble will present Coward’s humorous take on all things ghostly Nov. 2-4 and 9-11 under the direction of Aaron C. Wade.

“It’s a haunted tale with a little bit of comedy and it’s that time of the season for a ghost story,” said Wade. “It a fun challenge to do this sort of theater.”

Cultivating “Candide” at the University of Michigan

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Drawings of Candide

Some theaters revive Broadway hits. Others take chances on new plays that may or may not be successful. In 1973, an adventurous theater in New York did what no theater had ever done: the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn revived a 1957 Broadway flop. 

Candide, for all its problems, featured music by Leonard Bernstein that rivals what he accomplished in West Side Story and his best concert works. After bringing in new people to revise the book and lyrics and finding a radical new way to stage the work, the Chelsea brought Candide back to Broadway; there, it drew huge audiences, earned rave reviews, and took five Tony Awards. Since then, Candide has been a staple of theater and opera companies -- it lives on the line between musical theater and operetta -- and has been revised by other companies along the way.  

Now, on what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday, the University Opera Theatre, in collaboration with Michigan’s departments of Theatre & Drama and Musical Theatre, will present the 1988 Scottish Opera version. Matthew Ozawa will stage Bernstein’s favorite and final revision; Kenneth Kiesler will conduct the University Symphony Orchestra. “The Scottish version has much more music,” Ozawa reports. 

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

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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.

Theatre Nova’s "Stone Witch" meditates on elusive creativity

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Stone Witch

Dennis Kleinsmith as Simon Grindberg in The Stone Witch by Shem Bitterman at Theatre NOVA. Photograph by Golden Record Media Company.

Theatre Nova continues a season of World and Michigan premieres with the first Michigan staging of Shem Bitterman’s meditation on creativity, ambition, and aging, The Stone Witch.

The title refers to a children’s book by a young but struggling children’s book author and illustrator. Peter Chandler has the talent but is unable to sell himself or his cherished first book, based on an old folktale told by his mother.

An editor at a prestige publisher offers Chandler a deal. They’ll consider his book if he can help them encourage their famous star children’s book writer and illustrator to finally break through and end a 12-year-long creative block.

Bloody Good Times: Neighborhood Theatre Group's "Black Cat Cabaret"

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Neighborhood Theatre Group's Black Cat Cabaret

Music! Dance! Drama! And a wee bit of blood!

All that and more will feature in the Neighborhood Theatre Group's annual hit Halloween show, Black Cat Cabaret, which runs October 19 and 20 at Bona Sera Underground in Ypsilanti. Not appropriate for young children, Black Cat features live musical accompaniment by the NTG “Haunted” House Band, a cash bar, costume contest, and raffle. 

Pulp spoke with NTG company member Greg Pizzino and Tom Hett of the House Band about the show.

A Halloween Treat From the Penny Seats: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at WCC

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

In the summer of 2011, Lauren London, now general counsel at Eastern Michigan University, brought together a troupe of unpretentious and fun-loving thespians who created the Penny Seats Theatre Company. The idea was to offer theater tickets that were about the price of movie tickets, affordable for all, echoing the penny seats available to Elizabethans who came to shows at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. 

After opening its first production at the bandshell in West Park, Penny Seats performed in assorted venues, outdoors and in, including a restaurant, a church, and the rehearsal room of a theater -- but never in a theater.  They struggled with imperfect acoustics and limited equipment, becoming more technically savvy each season. And each season, Penny Seats did more and better productions.  Now, they do four-show seasons that include summers in the park. 

Over the years, the company produced musicals, dramas, comedies, and cabaret shows, including some original works, such as Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Renaissance Man. Horror was on the menu, too, last October, with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and in the park last summer with Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger and the musical based on Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein

There was no thought of making a habit of horror. Then Zettelmaier had an idea, which he presented to London and the rest of the board.  

Dear U-M Grads: Broadway and TV stars Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Darren Criss returned to campus

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Justin Paul, Benj Pasek and Darren Criss on stage at U-M's Rackham Auditorium

Star Power: U-M alums Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Darren Criss at Rackham Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Literati Bookstore.

At one point during Thursday night’s sold out, joyous on-stage conversation with Grammy, Tony, and Oscar award-winning songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- who met and started writing songs together when they were U-M musical theater students (’06) -- surprise guest moderator Darren Criss (Glee) stated what many of us were thinking: “Collectively, we’re a Michigan EGOT.”

Yes, Criss (’09) arrived in Ann Arbor fresh off his Emmy win for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, while Pasek and Paul came to promote a newly released novelization of their hit Broadway show, Dear Evan Hansen.

But the nearly two-hour event, presented by Literati Bookstore at U-M’s Rackham Auditorium, mostly felt like a chance to crash a reunion of really talented, witty friends who’d also, along the way, perform a few songs and a short reading. 

It’s all about the dancing in U-M’s "Sweet Charity"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Sweet Charity

You don’t have to be a big spender to enjoy the University of Michigan’s engaging, dance-happy return to the 1960s, Sweet Charity.

Sweet Charity is a lighter, thinner adaptation of Federico Fellini’s film Nights of Cabiria. The Neil Simon book changes the prostitutes of Rome into New York City taxi dancers at the Fandango Dance Hall. And the story is a mere pretext for the often-exhilarating dance numbers and clever songs.

With music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity is always on the move from the minute that Nevada Koenig struts on stage as the ever hopeful and usually disappointed Charity Hope Valentine. This is a musical about frustrated romance, but it’s also a musical about dance and movement.

U-M's "Night and Day" recasts ancient Roman and Greek stories with a modern multi-media production

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Night & Day poster

Though the title Night and Day initially calls to mind a famous Cole Porter tune, U-M’s new production of the same name -- consisting of a pair of playwright Charles Mee’s myth-inspired “dance/theatre works” -- bears absolutely no relation to the song.

Well, unless director Malcolm Tulip and his artistic collaborators decide it does, that is.

How could a theatrical presentation be so malleable? That’s both the allure and challenge of Mee’s work. Dubbed the “public domain playwright,” Mee draws on old stories, re-tells them with new text, and offers them up freely online by way of his (re)making project. Built on the idea that “there is no such thing as an original play,” (re)making invites artists to use Mee’s plays as the creative starting point more than a blueprint.

“It’s this incredible mixture of working with text, but then devising a whole new piece, too, because of the liberty he gives you to alter it and to remake his work,” said Tulip. “For me, the approach was discovering what all the parts meant, and what the skeleton of what he amassed looks like. Because even he’s bringing together elements from other sources, making a kind of collage. So you end up talking about and determining what you keep, what the thrust of each section is, and how you remake or rewrite them.”