PRESS RELEASE: Ann Arbor Summer Festival Director Amy Nesbitt to depart after this season

Image 1.jpgANN ARBOR, MI – Amy Nesbitt will be stepping down from her role as the Executive and Artistic Director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival (A2SF). After presenting the 2017 festival season, she will be transitioning in late summer to a new post in Arizona as the Director of Performing Arts for the nonprofit Scottsdale Arts.

Nesbitt was recruited for the position after a nationwide search by Scottsdale Arts, which oversees the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), and Scottsdale Public Art. In her new role, she will oversee programming for the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts’ year-round season and outdoor performances.

Festival board chair Wendy Lawrence notes, “The Summer Festival has been so fortunate to have had Amy’s talents and skills for the past 11 seasons. During Amy’s tenure, the Festival has significantly broadened its programming and increased its reach into our community. With an outstanding staff and a talented, diverse and enthusiastic board, we’re in a strong position to begin this new chapter in our history. This is an exciting opportunity for Amy professionally, and it builds on her A2SF considerable experience with the festival, four seasons of which she has served as the festival director.” Continue reading

My Pulp preview of Jas Obrecht (‘Talking Guitar’) event at Nicola’s Books

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Journalist/author Jas Obrecht will discuss his new book, “Talking Guitar,” at Nicola’s Books on Saturday, May 13 at 3 pm. (Photo by Saroyan Humphrey)

Longtime professional music journalist Jas Obrecht regularly tells his Washtenaw Community College creative writing students a story from early in his career.

Obrecht was sent by Guitar Player magazine to a music festival to interview Canadian rock guitarist Pat Travers, who, flanked by two young women while snorting cocaine off a mirror in his dressing room, sent Obrecht away. Obrecht stumbled upon a basketball hoop and ball, and after a few minutes of taking shots, a wiry young guy approached and asked to play.

That guy was Eddie Van Halen, who’d recently released Van Halen’s debut, self-titled album; and Obrecht found a new subject for his article.

“The story tells students that if you’re passionate about a subject, no matter what it is, there’s a good chance that others share that passion, and if you know the fundamentals of good writing, you can get paid to write about your own experiences, or about a subject you love,” said Obrecht, who’s also written for Rolling Stone, among other publications. “I did it with music, but you can do it with other things, too, like travel or history.”

More tales are in Obrecht’s newest book, Talking Guitar: Conversations with Musicians Who Shaped Twentieth Century American Music, which he’ll discuss at Nicola’s Books on Saturday at 3 p.m. READ THE REST HERE

My review of Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s ‘Act of God’

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Jaime Moyer stars in Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s “Act of God.”

Is it wrong that I kind of wish Jaime Moyer was God?

Yes or no, I got the opportunity to live out that alternative reality for about 80 minutes via “An Act of God” at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre.

Moyer’s a Detroit native, character actress, and comedienne who has, since moving to the West Coast, appeared on “Parks and Recreation,” “Two Broke Girls,” “Modern Family” and “Disney’s KC Undercover.” 

David Javerbaum’s play, meanwhile, was an outgrowth of a popular series of tweets (from @God), which led to a book, and then two limited-engagement Broadway productions starring sitcom stars Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) in 2015 and, in 2016, Sean Hayes (“Will & Grace”).

Keeping this in mind, casting Moyer in the role of the Almighty seems a no-brainer. She’s quick-witted, crazy-likable, and fun to watch.

So why does “Act of God” fall a bit flat? Well, for a few reasons. First, the script itself feels pretty flimsy, which – given its origin story – is hardly surprising. It’s frothy and sassy, with some sharp one-liners (Javerbaum previously wrote for “The Daily Show”), but the premise, wherein God has decided to revamp the Ten Commandments, lacks a true narrative motor. Yes, there’s a defined structure, but little-to-no momentum pushing us forward. READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp preview of Hank Greenspan’s ‘Remnants’ at AADL

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 11.39.50 AM.pngU-M professor Henry (“Hank”) Greenspan likes to talk — and thank goodness for that.

Greenspan has spent 40 years interviewing (and re-interviewing) Holocaust survivors, and from that trove of oral histories he compiled a radio-play-turned-one-man-show called Remnants, which he’ll perform on Monday, May 8, at the downtown library. He put together the radio play in the early ’90s, using material he first started collecting for his dissertation in the 1970s.

“The first thing I did was call rabbis who had congregations in the Southeast Michigan and Toledo area,” said Greenspan, who noted that doing survivor interviews was an uncommon practice at that time. “They’d tell people, ‘This guy from U of M wants to interview survivors.’ So initially I’d used the rabbis as matchmakers, but that quickly became unnecessary because things snowballed. People would say to me, in the middle of an interview, ‘You have to talk to my friend Zoli.’ … So I’d make an appointment to talk with Zoli, and one person led to another.”

This provided the foundation for Greenspan’s academic project, but it wasn’t until U-M’s now-defunct Talk to Us Theater Troupe asked Greenspan if he’d write something for them to perform at Hillel’s Holocaust conference that he considered taking the material in a new direction. READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp preview of Ellipsis Theatre’s ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’

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Simon (Eddie Rothermel) and Grusha (Lucy Price) in Ellipsis Theatre Company’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Bertolt Brecht’s canonical 1944 text The Caucasian Chalk Circle is the kind of play that many of us read in a college course but rarely see produced.

So it’s worth noting that locals will have the opportunity to see Circle on the stage when Ellipsis Theatre Company presents it at the Yellow Barn from May 4-21.

“Ellipsis is always very interested in the act of storytelling … so the fact that it’s so explicit in this play was appealing to us,” said Ellipsis co-founder Joanna Hastings, who’s both playing a role in and co-directing Circle with Scott Screws. “Plus, (Circle’s) so flexible. You can do it in all sorts of ways.”

Circle begins with a prologue. In the wake of a Soviet delegate settling a World War II-era dispute over land, a storyteller steps forward to tell what happens when a Caucasian city’s political revolution ends with a poor kitchen maid (Grusha) fleeing a castle with the assassinated governor’s new baby (Michael). Grusha makes tough sacrifices to keep Michael hidden and safe, but when the war ends and those who previously held power are restored, the baby’s mother comes for her son. She needs him to claim the former governor’s estate, but Grusha has come to love the boy, and the situation leads a similarly beleaguered, war-tested judge to stage a custody test involving a chalk circle. READ THE REST HERE

My Concentrate story about iconic Ann Arbor music venue The Blind Pig, now up for sale

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 12.11.18 PM.pngLet me say this up front: although I was a U-M student at exactly the right time (1989-1993), I did not see Nirvana play the Blind Pig either time – opening for the Flaming Lips in October 1989, or headlining in April 1990. Nor did I see Smashing Pumpkins in 1991, Pearl Jam that same year, or Dave Matthews in 1994.

So who did I see at the Pig back in the day? His Name is Alive, Crossed Wire (multiple times), Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Map of the World. (Possibly Throwing Muses too, though my memory’s hazy on this point.) I saw bands that had found some success, and regularly drew young fans and crowds to the then-smoky club, but weren’t fated to ever land on the cover of Rolling Stone.

That’s OK. I still had a great time. I remember asking HNIA’s former frontwoman Karin Oliver, seated at the Pig’s bar between sets, to sign my red flyer for the show. (She seemed surprised but delighted by my request.) During Crossed Wire shows, I danced up a storm while jockeying for position, hoping to catch lead singer Chris Moore’s eye. And I shamelessly belted my favorite Toad tunes, closing my eyes while harmonizing with Glen Phillips.

Lots of locals have been revisiting their personal history with the Pig lately, since Swisher Commercial listed the building for sale in February. Though whoever buys it may choose to keep the space a music venue and bar, the Pig’s location within Ann Arbor’s exploding downtown business district makes it a hot prospect for a broad range of potential buyers.

No one knows what the future holds for the Pig. But we can know its history, how its identity has changed over time, and the place it’s held – for years and years – in Ann Arbor’s live music scene. READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW: Encore Theatre’s ‘Into the Wild’ has great music (and star), but needs sharpening


Conor Ryan stars in “Into the Wild” at Dexter’s Encore Theatre. (Photo by Michele Anliker Photography)

Being confronted with Christopher McCandless’ true tragic tale – now being told via “Into the Wild” at Dexter’s Encore Theatre – during young adulthood is a very different experience from watching it unfold as a parent. As a teen or twentysomething, you think, “He’s so gutsy and true to himself!” while the older you thinks, “Dear God, why did he plot this doomed course for himself?!”

It’s like generational “Rashomon.” You’re seeing the same story, but your subjective filter skews how you perceive this cult figure.

Based on Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, “Into the Wild” (as well as a collection of McCandless’ own writings, postcards, and photos called “Back to the Wild”), the in-development stage musical – with music and lyrics by Niko Tsakalakos, and book and lyrics by Janet Allard – focuses fairly tightly on McCandless’ post-college years. Upon graduating from Emory, McCandless (Conor Ryan) donated the remaining $25,000 that had been set aside for his education to charity and started hitchhiking around the country, working odd jobs while having no contact with his frustrated-but-loving parents (Sarah Briggs and Greg Bailey).

McCandless lived this free-spirit life for two years before deciding to go to Alaska, a landscape he viewed as largely uncorrupted by mankind and civilization. Aiming to live off the land, McCandless hiked off into the Alaskan wilderness, woefully unprepared for all that Mother Nature might throw at him, and he soon made camp in an old, abandoned bus.

The show’s creators (along with director Mia Walker) are seeing the show on its feet for the first time at Encore, after years of work, and there’s a good deal to be excited about. Tsakalakos’ music is, on the whole, terrific, with achingly beautiful melodies and harmonies – delivered by Encore’s vocally top-notch ensemble, and guided by music director Tyler Driskill – that made me want to run out buy a cast recording that doesn’t even exist yet. Continue reading

My latest Art & Soul segment with Lisa Barry on WEMU-FM 89.1 (for May)

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Our latest Art & Soul segment highlights artists involved in two ongoing theater productions: Conor Ryan, the U-M musical theater grad who’s starring in the developmental premiere of “Into the Wild” at Dexter’s Encore Theatre; and David MacGregor, the Michigan playwright whose dark comedy “Vino Veritas” is having a revival at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre. (This also happens to be the Rose’s 100th production, after the company celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.) Listen to the segment here, and check out Ryan singing an excerpt from the song “Alaska” below.

REVIEW: U-M makes the most of flawed stage adaptation of ‘Disney’s The Little Mermaid’

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Halli Toland and Trevor Carr in the Department of Musical Theatre’s production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” (Photo by Peter Smith Photography)

Since the release of Disney’s 1989 animated movie musical, “The Little Mermaid,” feminist moms have found themselves in a bind: it’s nearly impossible to resist Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s witty, charming score; but the story – with its heroine who sacrifices her voice and mermaid identity for a cute guy with whom she’s never even conversed (and then she must somehow earn his love without speaking) – sends some pretty problematic messages, to say the least.

The stage musical adaptation of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” recently staged by U-M’s musical theater department, admirably tries to take direct aim at these issues, with mixed results. Book writer Doug Wright, accompanied by Ashman and Menken’s original score, with additional lyrics by Glenn Slater, invests more scenes and numbers to the courtship of mute Ariel (Halli Toland) and Prince Eric (Trevor Carr), including “One Step Closer,” in which Eric insists, “Who needs words? Dancing beats small talk any day.”

Um … while I appreciate the sentiment and effort – and adore musicals to boot – even I can’t really buy into this. Especially when the male speaker, who can talk, holds all the power. Continue reading