Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Archived reviews

Thanks to an agreement with the Journal and some wonderful work by the Category Lead of the travel section at, several of past shows in the area have been added to the Epinions database. I've added links to the left that lead to past reviews I've written--some tweaked to be more appropriate for the national audience.

When at the NEA Institute, we talked about how often reviews are the one lasting, concrete record of a live performance and that part of their purpose is to preserve the memory of the work that was done. Given that, and the fact that artistic directors will often read reviews of previously performed shows when picking a season, I'm pleased to be able to republish many reviews in a forum that will have a longer life.

Others will be added over the coming weeks--and I'm still working on getting Epinions reviews written for She Stoops to Conquer and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I am stingy with standing ovations for the sake of those shows which are truly outstanding and memorable.

Last night, without hesitation, I stood for the performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Speaking personally...

Given that this is a personal blog, I'm going to do something you'll never read about in my column: Talk about my two favorite guys, Richard and my son (sorry, name removed).

While I could write rhapsodically about either of them for inches and inches and even feet and yards, I'll stick with just the most recent news.

On my son's 9th birthday he auditioned for the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. We recently learned that he was cast as Young Macduff in Macbeth. He and his father will be appearing on stage together for the first time this summer. Richard will be playing the porter and the messenger that tries to warn Lady Macduff. The latter role is being filled by Lansing actress, Laura Croff.

So if anyone has any questions about where I'll be for the final two weekends in July and the first weekend in August, see above. Won't you join me there?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Coming up this weekend

There's no excuse not to partake in art this weekend and if you hear anyone say there's "nothing to do," you have my permission to mock them.

The East Lansing film festival is in full swing, but I'll leave that discussion to others because I'm singularly unqualified to discuss it at all.

Theater-wise, there are more shows than there are showtimes:

  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Peppermint Creek
  • The Crucible, Lansing Community College
  • She Stoops to Conquer, Riverwalk Theatre
  • Voice of Good Hope, BoarsHead
  • Fully Committed (final weekend), Williamston Theatre
  • On the Town, Waverly High School
  • Kiss Me Kate, Grand Ledge High School
  • How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, East Lansing High School
Somehow, it wouldn't surprise me if I missed a show somewhere.

Fatal Error

It's a bit late as far as the Lansing scene is concerned, but I'm trying to catch up on all the reviews I haven't finished. The Fatal Error review is more about the play than about this production given the timing and the audience at Epinions.

From what I've heard, my opinion of the play was somewhat a minority view, but then I 've always been attracted to non-linear literature.

Speaking of reviews, I enjoyed Ken Glickman's review of BoarsHead's Voice of Good Hope. I enjoyed the play and was especially attracted to the language used, but I agree with Ken that Patricia Idlette never convinced me that Jordan's voice was particularly powerful.

What I'm finding most exciting is the opportunity to see plays written by local people. It's something that Lansing has always done well--whether musicals, children's shows, or shows like Voice of Good Hope and Fatal Error.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Stuff Happens

Nothing local today (not that there isn't plenty going on that is local--just nothing I'm going to blog right at this moment as I try to catch up on those other non-theater aspects of my life), just a script review.

While in L.A., we had the opportunity to meet the director and some of the actors who performed in a version of David Hare's Stuff Happens. The main question I had about how you produce such a script had already been answered earlier in the week--you have a huge budget (at least, huge by Lansing standards).

It was fascinating to hear them talk about how you produce a show where all the characters are real people who are familiar faces in the media. The challenge is to keep them from becoming a Saturday Night Live script. They said it was often a matter of coming out and letting the audience laugh for a moment before grabbing them and forcing them to see your creation rather than the vision they walk in with.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Blue Light Players

From Helen Hart of the Blue Light Players:

The Blue Light Players are gearing up for their spring production in April. The Blue Light Players are a children's musical theater group dedicated to raising funds for the families of fallen police officers. We are in need of the following backstage assistance: 2 curtain pullers, and 1 prop/costume handler/babysitter (basically getting props and accessories into the hands on 9 squirmy kids just before they head onto stage). Assistance is needed on the following dates/times:

April 15: 4pm-6pm (technical rehearsal)
April 19: 6pm-8pm (dress rehearsal)
April 20: 6pm-9pm (performance)
April 21: 3pm-6pm (performance)

The location is at Christ United Methodist Church - Social Hall Stage, 517 W. Jolly Rd. Anyone who may be interested in assisting may contact Helen Hart at 517-282-4699 and leave a message. I will return all calls as soon as I am able.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Gems from Dominic Papatola

At the NEA Institute, Drama Critic Dominic Papatola (he's the guy waving in the picture below taken on our final night at the top of the Westin in a revolving bar) was one of our more practical speakers. He focused on what a critics role in the newsroom should be and what we can do to make our reviews better.

Some of the highlights of the session for me were these statements:
The world is screaming for information. We produce a vital commodity, but the way we produce it is too expensive. Everything is local. Hyper-local. Theater coverage can come only from the community where it happens. Unfortunately, many news rooms perceive it as being ‘not useful.”

There is a lot to be said for this. If I wanted to know about American Idol or Apprentice, there are a million Websites and fan sites that can slate my thirst. If I want to know about a movie, I'm most likely going to go to Epinions or to Rotton Tomatoes. However, if I want information about the live theater that I see, I've got to get it here in Lansing. Newspaper have the opportunity to provide unique content--and unique content is certainly the buzz word when it comes to being economically successful online.

Art critics have to be as good as any other writer, teacher, and philosopher. Art is organic, it’s part of life. Be journalists. You can’t just engage theater in the auditorium. You have to connect it to the world: what is happening in business, politics, neighborhoods, pop culture. Find stories that connect theater to the community.

This is one of my biggest challenges as a reviewer. My tendency is to connect theater to other theater because that is what is meaningful in my world. However, what is meaningful to me is not necessarily meaningful to my reader.

Finally, Dominic expounded on the five "devils" of arts writing:

  1. Loving the sound of your own voice.
  2. Ivy towerism.
  3. Lack of agility to hop on something that’s a story.
  4. Lack of engagement; lack of participation.
  5. Write to your length. If not, give the editor optional cuts.

youngARTS magazine

It looks like I'll soon be writing for youngARTS magazine, a national magazine featuring high school students who compete for scholarships in the visual and performing arts. I was impressed with the amount of money they give out to performers each year.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Review: Gypsy is coming up roses

I've posted my review of the Lansing Civic Players' Gypsy at Epinions.

Opening this weekend

BoarsHead is opening Voice of Good Hope, a play written by its artistic director, Kristine Thatcher and the third and final installment of the Stages of the Law series sponsored by Cooley Law School.
The play is a loving tribute to Barbara Jordan, a black congresswoman from Texas whom Molly Ivins said spoke with the "voice of God."

The play is powerfully written, but I'd personally recommend waiting to see it until a little later in the run. It's going to be a wonderful production worthy of seeing, but as of the preview last night, it wasn't quite ready for public consumption. There were still a lot of difficulties with the lines, particularly on the part of the lead who has a very heavy load in this play. There were at least two times when there appeared to be major flubs that the actors had to work hard to rescue.

So do go see this play, just wait until they've had a few more rehearsals and performances under their belts.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Quotes for the day

John Stoehr at shared these quotes from arts journalists at the Poynter Institute. They were from Christopher Blank, a performing arts writer in Memphis.

1. Try fanaticism for a change. … Sports writers want you to feel that every game is earth-shatteringly IMPORTANT. I feel this way about the arts in my community. I’m not saying we should treat the subject matter with a velvet glove or go easy on a bad play. But there’s a subtle difference in a review that calls a bad show an affront to all art and a review that chalks it up as a loss for the team.”

2. “Expand the repertoire. … Performing arts writers — me included — easily get bogged down in a routine of reviewing and previewing traditional art forms. However, more people are experiencing a wide variety of arts that pass under the radar, such as through church concerts or at sporting events. … Find stories that tell people, ‘Hey, you may not know it, but the thing you’ve been watching is art.’”

3. Speak the gospel, hear the gospel. Being receptive to feedback and open to change is essential. Arts reporters should adapt to the tastes of the community, not the other way around. … For arts groups, constant shapeshifting is a crucial means for survival. Applying it to arts coverage isn’t far behind.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Gypsy at Lansing Civic Players

Gypsy is one of those shows that the more I think back on it, the more I like what I saw.

I'm still hoping that the show will be added to the Epinions database in the next couple days and I can post a full review, but here are some initial thoughts:

  • This is a show that demonstrated why acting happens in the "pauses." Gordon Hicks and Kat Cooper did so much storytelling in the moments where they had no lines. It was their reactions to Mama Rose that made such numbers as Everything's Coming up Roses so very heart-breaking.
  • Kat Cooper also deserves kudos for being subtle about Louise's performance struggles. Louise lacks the more natural talent of her percocious sister and there are many choices of how to play that. Cooper gave us a Louise who fumbled her dancing, but tried to cover it up. She didn't draw attention to the errors, but trusted that the audience would know it was intentional. It was a subtle choice that paid off.
  • Emily Hadick was the perfect Baby June--all bouncey and cuddly. Plus, she could sing.
  • Cindy Lyons Miller has an excellent voice and her numbers were very strong. In the first act, her movements seemed awkward and forced, which made it difficult to relate to her. However, they became more natural as the show went on and as the character's drive and mania intensified.
  • Since West Side Story, has there been a Sondheim musical that showcased choreography? Certainly the only opportunity for it in this show were in the vaudeville numbers and in Joe Quick's delightful Act I dance as Tulsa. There again, it was Cooper's longing expressions that added depth to that scene and made it more than just a great dance number.
  • Terra Forbes has my respect for her commitment to the role of Mazeppa. It's difficult enough to play a stripper with a trumpet, but to do it with an injured knee deserves an extra bow.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Once on This Island

I've just come from The Gate where my son and I witnessed a sold-out production of Once on This Island put on by the musical theater ensemble.

It was a very moving production demonstrating the power of movement in storytelling. The young performers brought an intensity and range of emotion to this mythic fable of doomed love and prejudice that keeps people apart.

Once I've had time for my thoughts on the show to percolate and I've sat with my feelings on it long enough to explore them, I'll write a full review and post it at Epinions. In the mean time, my first impressions are that this is a group of young people who understand the power of storytelling. In one scene, they were able to move me to tears and my heart ached with the characters as they made choices from which there would be no return.

Once on This Island explores what it means to love in the face of betrayal and the strength and power of love that unbelievers desire to quench. It's a beautiful story and the performing artists at The Gate tell it well.

On stage this weekend

Lansing Civic Players

LCP is opening its musical Friday night. Dan Pappas is directing Stephen Sondheim's Gypsy. The cast of 30 is filled with a lot of new names and faces along with such favorites as Gordon Hicks and Joe Quick. Shows are this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., repeating next weekend. They perform at Hannah Community Center.

I adore Sondheim and am looking forward to seeing this musical over the weekend.

The Gate

The musical theater ensemble at The Gate Performing Arts Center in East Lansing has three more performances of Once On This Island. The troupe of 13 to 19 year olds are performing tonight at 8 p.m. and then at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday.

I was recently awed by the dance ensemble's performance of The Dispossessed and am looking forward to seeing what the musical ensemble does this evening. There's a lot of talent in this school, talent that I think we'll be hearing more of in the years to come.

Williamston Theatre

There is no excuse not to see Williamston Theatre's Fully Committed. It's the beauty of having a six-week run of every show. There's lots of time to get there.

Williamston Theatre just opened last year and they've been doing some incredible work. Every show I've seen out there has had superb performances and this show is no exception. I didn't care for the story arc in this particular script, but that didn't detract from how delightfully entertaining it was and the superb jobs that actor Aral Gribble and Director Tony Caselli have done.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Theater as Ecosystem

In one of the most inspiring sessions of the Institute, Ben Cameron talked about the state of theater and theater funding in this country. He also delved into the sociology of theater. Over the coming few weeks, I'll quote a lot from him and others as a foundation for talking about theater here in Lansing. So much of what was said there has ties back here.

Ben Cameron said:

Things have changed. We have to get rid of the hierarchy in theater. It used to be that if you were the biggest budget theater, you won. Now it is an ecosystem. Everyone needs each other. The non-profit can’t survive without the commercial theater which can’t survive without the community theaters. 90 percent of theaters operate with $1 million or less; 70% with less than $500,000.

This was an image that spoke volumes to me and described Lansing so well. Trying to rank local theaters by budget size is an outdated mode of thinking that fails to take into consideration the individual missions of each theater group and the niches that they fill. Any time you lose a theater, the entire theater community loses. Likewise, the more theaters that exist, the more vibrancy everyone has and the more likely it is that all will survive.

Icarus Falling and Peppermint Creek have the freedom to explore surreal and hard-hitting shows in part because Lansing Civic Players is providing audiences with the traditional fare that they demand. BoarsHead can pull actors from Michigan State University's theater program. All-of-Us Children's Express and Riverwalk Theater support each other with family programming. There are webs of support all through the community, some of them intentional and others that merely exist.

I still mourn the loss of Bath Community Theatre Guild in part because there is no one else doing what they did for either Bath as a community or the Lansing-area theaters. They're a group that supported drama and theater within the schools: maintaining the space, directing the high school shows, putting on daytime productions for Bath classes, providing theater opportunities for students in the schools, and offering educational support for arts in the classroom. They also acted as a feeder for many of the Lansing theater groups. Every show had someone new to theater in it. First-time directors experimented in Bath before taking their shows to other stages.

Every group has a purpose and all of them make Lansing a richer a place, a community worth living in.

A reading list

This was a list of suggested reading to gain a greater understanding of actor movement on stage. I'm currently overloaded with books to read (51 for a contest I'm judging, six that need reviews, and four about theater from the Institute), but once that clears up, these ones are on my list.

In the mean time, perhaps someone else can benefit from them:

  • Etienne Decroux, Words on Mime, Mime Journal, Claremont, CA.
  • Eugenio Barba, The Paper Canoe, Routledge 1995.
  • Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology, Routledge.Thomas Leabhart, Modern and Post-Modern Mime, Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press.
  • Thomas Leabhart, Etienne Decroux, Routledge 2007.
  • Ted Shawn, Every Little Movement, Dance Horizons.
  • Franc Chamberlain and Thomas Leabhart, A Decroux Companion, Routledge (forthcoming 2008).

Theater in Lansing

Lansing is responsible for my having fallen so permanently in love with theater.

At a recent National Endowment for the Arts Journalism Institute on Theater and Musical Theater, the keynote speaker exhorted the 25 critics gathered there to get to where they could see theater--meaning New York or London. I immediately bristled as New York and London have so little to do with theater as I know it and I found the idea that theater happened only in those locales to be hopelessly parochial.

Yes, theater in Lansing is done on a far smaller budget than it is in New York, London, or Los Angeles. All that means is that the artists can be truer to their vision without having to worry about the financial return to their investors.

There's also plenty of theatrical work that artists from elsewhere might look down their noses and and presume to call "bad." They do so, however, because they do not understand the role that theater plays in the community and what each group accomplishes.

There are many theaters in Lansing and I can't think of a single one that doesn't deserve or need to exist. Every one fills its own unique purpose and has different stakeholders that it serves.

Theater as ecosystem. That's another concept we heard a lot about at the NEA Institute and I can think of nowhere where that's truer than in Lansing.