39th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Fest’s second night thrills sold-out crowd

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STORY BY ROGER LELIEVRE

On night two of the annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, it was all about the genre’s elders.

The annual musical buffet, held in Hill Auditorium and sold out Friday and Saturday, is the main fundraiser for The Ark, Ann Arbor’s nonprofit home for acoustic music and more.

Sure, the kids impressed during the first part of Saturday’s show, with deserved standing ovations for Michigan’s own The Accidentals, who opened the evening (the audience loved “Michigan and Again and Again”), and Joshua Davis of “The Voice” and Steppin In It fame. He did a fine job with his easygoing band, despite a muddy sound mix, especially on the Detroit/Flint ode “The Workingman’s Hymn.” The vocal quartet Darlingside (four guys gathered around a single mic) offered sweet, spot-on harmonies that pulled from folk, pop and barbershop traditions and earned another standing O.

Alan Doyle, best known as lead singer for Newfoundland’s beloved export Great Big Sea and touring with his more recent band, got the crowd fired up with Celtic-influenced songs like the bluesy “Testify (Take Me To The River)” and the rowdy GBS-style drinking tune “1,2,3,4” which might as well be subtitled “Whiskey Whiskey.” Much to the delight of this Great Big Sea fan, he also included the GBS song “Ordinary Day” as the capstone of his set. The only problem here was over-amplification – the vocals were on the unintelligible side, though part of the problem was probably Doyle’s charming but thick accent.

But after intermission was when the night really began to sound like a good old-fashioned folk music revival. Continue reading

Highlights from night one of the 39th annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival

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STORY BY ROGER LELIEVRE

One thing you can always count on at the annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, a fundraiser for the much-loved downtown acoustic music venue The Ark, is that you’re guaranteed two nights of great music, even if you’ve never heard of some of the bands on the bill.

This year’s Folk Festival – the 39th annual, and marking the end of The Ark’s 50-year celebration – kicked off Friday in Hill Auditorium.

Among Friday’s performers, City and Colour had previously played the Folk Festival in 2013. Revered British singer/guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson has countless local appearances to his credit. Yo La Tengo has been performing around these parts for nearly three decades, and the Ben Daniels Band is from neighboring Chelsea.

But The Oh Hellos, Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line or Penny & Sparrow? Never heard of them? Well, that’s kind of the point. With the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, it’s as much about the bands and performers you know as those you don’t. If you go, you’re bound to find some new favorites, and most of them will be returning to The Ark for full shows later in the year.

For me, one litmus test of the Folk Festival lineup is which of the bands made a big enough impression that I would be willing to catch them solo. So who made the cut? Continue reading

Theatre Nova goes to the dogs with ‘Chesapeake’

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Sebastian Gerstner stars in the one-person comedy “Chesapeake” at Theatre Nova.

One year ago, actor Sebastian Gerstner earned rave reviews, laughs, and a Wilde Award nomination for his role in Theatre Nova’s inaugural, one-man production “Buyer and Cellar,” so perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that Gerstner will be bringing multiple characters to life again on TN’s stage by way Lee Blessing’s “Chesapeake.”

But experience doesn’t necessarily make the task of carrying an entire show on his shoulders easier.

“(Gerstner) told me that every day now, he’s writing in his journal, ‘Never agree to do a one-man show again,’” said director Dan Walker (who also directed “Buyer”) with a laugh. “The memorization is so intense. But he’s so good at it.”

“Chesepeake” – inspired by Senator Jesse Helms’ 1989 campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts – premiered in New York in 1999, in a production starring Mark Linn-Baker (of “Perfect Strangers” fame). Since then, Blessing has revamped the script, which focuses on Kerr, a bisexual performance artist from the South who’s fled to New York. A conservative politician from Kerr’s home state uses both his dog, Lucky, and Kerr’s edgy work to attack the NEA in a campaign commercial – and the ad helps him win the Senate seat. For revenge, Kerr plans an elaborate heist to dognap Lucky, but this leads him down a path he could never have expected to travel. Continue reading

Exclusive interview with Mitch Albom about his new show, ‘Hockey: The Musical’

albomIn regard to bestselling author/journalist Mitch Albom’s new musical comedy stage farce, Hockey: The Musical, the puck will drop mid-May.

And if you haven’t heard about this new project, you’re not alone. “I haven’t really talked to anyone about it,” said Albom. “But when we listed for auditions – it’s hard to keep something quiet once you do that.”

Indeed. But what will the show be about – beyond, you know, hockey? “In a nutshell, it’s about what happens when the universe, or God, decides there are too many sports in the world, so one has to go,” Albom said. “Hockey has been chosen to be eliminated from the world, but a fan comes forth and begs and says, ‘No, not hockey! Please, please not hockey!’ The deal is, if he can find 5 pure souls to explain why hockey shouldn’t be eliminated, heaven will relent and choose another sport.” READ THE REST HERE

Theater review: ‘Straight White Men’ offers subtly powerful family drama

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Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company production of “Straight White Men.” Photo by Brian Medina

Before Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company’s “Straight White Men” – presented in Ann Arbor this past weekend by University Musical Society – got underway on Friday, eardrum-pounding hiphop music filled the Mendelssohn Theater.

This was so antithetical to the usual staid, hushed atmosphere of a theater before showtime that I winced and rolled my eyes, as I sometimes do when a young white guy drives by in a car that’s vibrating with bass and expletive-packed lyrics.

Oh. Right. This play is about those guys.

But while you might guess, from the title, that Lee’s drama mocks or berates this demographic, it is instead a sympathetic, moving, and surprisingly naturalistic – particularly if you saw Lee’s “Untitled Feminist Show” last week at Ann Arbor’s Power Center – family drama about ambition and masculinity. Continue reading

Kickshaw Theatre aims to light up Ann Arbor with ‘The Electric Baby’

ELECTRIC-BABY-KICKSHAWNo, “The Electric Baby” isn’t the name of a new band; it’s the first full production to be staged by Kickshaw Theatre – a new, Ann Arbor-based professional company.

Written by Stefanie Zadravec, “Baby” tells the darkly comic, fantastical story of six people whose lives collide following a tragic car crash, and a mysterious, glowing infant that might lead them all to find love, strength, and forgiveness.

“I never saw a production of it,” said director and Kickshaw co-founder Lynn Lammers. (“Baby” had its world premiere in Pittsburgh in 2012.) “I just came upon it through a deep, deep, deep dive of looking for plays that are theatrical, and tell diverse stories, and are written by a playwright who maybe deserves to have her day in the sun, but hasn’t yet. … And I thought that, as our first full production, this would say something about what Kickshaw is about, and what it’s going to be.” READ THE REST HERE

My EncoreMichigan.com review of Slipstream Theatre’s ‘Hedda Gabler’

heddaBaby, it’s cold outside? Please. When you’re staging Hedda Gabler, baby, it’s even colder inside.

A new, arresting, streamlined adaptation on Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama is now on stage at Ferndale’s Slipstream Theatre. The title character, played by three women (Kaitlyn Valor Bourque, Luna Alexander, and Tiaja Sabrie), is newly, if not ecstatically, married to a young academic, George (Ryan Ernst), when she learns that an old flame, Eilert (Artun Kircali), is back in town.

Though suffering from alcoholism, Eilert has written a hugely successful book; and under the radar and “on the wagon” – with the starry-eyed help of an old schoolmate of Hedda’s who’s in an unhappy marriage (Victoria Rose Weatherspoon) – he’s also just written his masterpiece. When Eilert misplaces the manuscript, and it ends up in Hedda’s hands, she believes she finally might have the power she’s wanted all along.

Slipstream’s adaptation is a thoughtful, bare bones approach, disposing of George’s aunt (who’s ushered to “off-stage” status) and the maid. We also have three Heddas: one the frigid trophy wife (Bourque), one the sultry seductress (Alexander), one the youthful, wisecracking, puckish rebel (Sabrie), not only suggesting the identity complexities that lie within us all, but also representing Hedda’s common denominator for three different men. The Hedda that each male character needs, and feels drawn to, textures the way we read and respond to them. READ THE REST HERE

My EncoreMichigan.com review of ‘Sesame Street Live: Let’s Dance’

letsdanceAs a parent, when you hear, “Let’s sing Itsy Bitsy Spider,” you don’t normally expect the next words to be a super-pumped “LET’S DO THIS!”

But then again, you are not usually getting this invitation from Sesame Street Livecharacters at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, where the newest production, “Let’s Dance,” is now playing.

Fittingly, the “Spider” that follows isn’t like your wobbly-voiced, finger-pinching home edition. It’s got a beat, with a touch of funk and lots of Sesame Street’s big, beloved, colorful characters (plus two human stars) exuberantly executing choreography.

In a way, this sums up “Let’s Dance” in a nutshell. READ THE REST HERE

Theater review: ‘Untitled Feminist Show’ is both stripped down and complex

untitled-feminist-show-1-by-julieta-cervantesjpg-e9f93ec293d2444aPhoto by Julieta Cervantes

At the beginning of the Young Jean Lee Theater Company’s production of “Untitled Feminist Show,” in Ann Arbor for two performances (Thursday and Friday, January 21 and 22) courtesy of UMS, members of the six person cast breathe and walk slowly, in unison, down the Power Center’s two main aisleways, completely naked.

The moment has the feeling of an ancient ritual, but it also gives the audience a quiet moment to adjust to seeing unabashed nudity, in the form of aging, imperfect bodies that we don’t usually see beyond the bounds of our own mirror.

It’s shocking, and makes you realize that while we may think, in our hyper-sexualized culture, that we see the human body all the time, we’re actually only invited to gaze at one particular type of body: young and thin. To see a much broader range of bodies dancing, leaping, interacting with audience members is a strange kind of revelation. Continue reading

Dexter’s Encore Theatre presents an evening with Sondheim

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 1.45.40 PM.pngWant to spend an intimate evening in iconic musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim’s living room, hearing stories and insights from the man himself?

That might be a tall order, but Encore Theatre aims to come close to giving you this experience by way of “Sondheim by Sondheim,” a show, conceived by James Lapine, that marries performances of several of Sondheim’s songs, spanning his long career, with video clips of the composer discussing his life and work.

“It’s like Sondheim is giving this master class on technique and process,” said director (and Encore Theatre co-founder) Dan Cooney. “ … I didn’t see this on Broadway, but I saw a production in Chicago, in this tiny, small space, … and I thought, ‘Oh, it doesn’t need to be a Broadway revue thing with big costumes and kicks and spins. It can just be a night with the man.”

Continue reading