Thursday, January 31, 2008

Taking a day off...

Since I posted three times yesterday, I'm not going to write much today.

Instead, tomorrow I'll write about Melissa Kaplan and share some of the wonderful things that came out of the interview with her which I couldn't shoehorn into today's column.

Don't forget this weekend:
  • Murderers at BoarsHead
  • seen/not seen at Ruhala Performing Arts Center
  • Art at Williamston
  • Side Man at Riverwalk
  • Happendance concert
  • Six Characters in Search of an Author at MSU
  • Cinderella in Owosso
What, you weren't going to let a little bit of snow and cold keep you home, were you?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Changes to Front Row Center

I've been teasing about this for a little over a week now, so it's time to spill the beans.

Part of the teasing was because I was still figuring things out and didn't want to commit myself before the ideas had been thought through. However, tomorrow's column will launch a new series of features that I'm planning to carry on throughout the year.

Starting tomorrow, I will alternate four new features which will each run once a month. They are:
  • Backstage tour: A look at individual organizations and how they are operated, what they perform, who they are. Who is involved with them? How much experience does someone need to become involved? I'll alternate between vocal music, instrumental music, dance, and theater.
  • Arts & Education: A look at the bountiful opportunities in our community to learn the performing arts, whether you are a child or an adult. I'll also explore some of the things that are going on in several different art education settings.
  • Spotlight: A personality profile on people involved in the arts whether they be artists, administrators, technicians, or patrons.
  • Arts & Culture: A feature looking at arts issues and how they affect the community. This will cover a wide range of topics and will explore general ideas such as voluntarism or the value of art as well as specific topics that are of immediate importance to the arts community.
I will, of course, continue to write about upcoming events and shows. It is my hope, though, that this format will allow for an even greater coverage of the arts community in a context that spreads beyond the week-to-week performances.

Quote about reviewers

This from Nancy Melich, a former Salt Lake Tribune theater critic:

"The job of a theater critic is not to get people to go to the theater, or to get them to stay home. The job of a theater critic is to keep the reader interested in the theater."

Six Characters in Search of an Author

Last night I went to Michigan State University's Arena Theatre to see Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Directed by Nick Tamarkin, it was performed by MSU Theatre students.

The performance was outstanding. It was one of those fascinating shows that has the potential to be outdated and filled with passe references of little relevance to modern audiences. Instead, the show that was staged was engrossing, one which captivated the audience almost from the word go.

It can be deadly to lose an audience in the Arena Theatre. I've been to productions in past years where I've looked across the stage only to see some of my fellow audience members with nodding heads and closed eyes catching a nap until they can escape an over-indulgent performance that treated the audience as irrelevant as authentic emotion.

Not so last night.

Last night was one of those magical experiences where the audience would often breathe as one, taking in oxygen only when the play's dramatic moments deemed it acceptable. It was most notable the first time that two of the "characters" stepped off the sideline and onto the stage for the first time. There was an audible exhalation when their foot slowly lowered onto the stage.

A small moment, but one done so well that it captivated and intrigued.

The play was first staged in 1921 and a fight nearly broke out between those who hated it and those who loved it. The play begins with actors rehearsing a show until they are interrupted by six characters who were created by an author who abandoned them. They are now searching for another author to finish their story so that they can achieve the immortality afforded to all compelling fictional characters.

Pirandello's original script is filled with pokes at his contemporary colleagues and the manner in which plays were being written at the time. Six Characters is a satire, carrying with it the inherent risks of satire--that it will become outdated when the issues of the day are long deteriorated. The MSU production responded by putting in its own references, names, and even a more modern play which it was rehearsing rather than the Pirandello show in the original script.

Whereas Pirandello had specific targets for his biting barbs, the ones the MSU students used sometimes fell a little flat because they didn't match their targets particularly well. It sometimes seemed they picked organizations at random rather than because the barb was particularly suited to fly in that direction.

Thankfully, the other updates made were typically far more effective. The portrayal of a rehearsal was highly believable and the actors frequently moved into the audience as if they were unaware the seats weren't empty.

Particularly strong were the performances of the Father and Stepdaughter who were electrifying both in what they said and what they did not say. There was a vividness about them despite their shadowy, dark costuming and the way they hung about the unlit edges for the first half of the show. They truly begged the question whether they were more real than those who were actors rather than characters.

The thoughtful staging and pacing intensified as the play progressed, mixing the "actors'" unstructured relaxed movement with the stylized, intentional movements of the characters, building up to the heightened climax which left the actors modeling many of the emotions that rippled through the audience.

Purists familiar with the show who dislike changes to the script might have some objections to what is done in this production, but it is executed so well that I have to believe Pirandello would approve and appreciate the updating and vivid relevance the students brought to this classic script.

The very ending is worth discussing as well, but I don't wish to give a spoiler, so I'll wait until the show has closed.

And for a completely different opinion, check out the review by the always insightful Mary Cusak.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Columns, Side Man, & Selling Out

Whew! I think I've finally caught up on the back log of topics that I wanted to write about.

OK, I still need to write about the upcoming changes to my column, but that will be for tomorrow's entry. Lately, I've had some absolutely wonderful interviews with people in the community--interviews that end up getting distilled to three or four quotes in a review. I may start expanding upon some of my columns in this space. Yes, I need to be disciplined about making sure I have a complete story in the column itself because my readership here is much smaller than my readership in print. However, for those who are interested in reading more, it'll be here. Plus, I can insert some of my own thoughts, reactions, and ideas. However, I'll wait until after the column has published.

Which means looking back to last week's column and...

Riverwalk's The Side Man

I saw this show on Sunday. Director Susan Chmurynsky said they'd had several people walk out on them because of the show's language.

It does have strong language in it--language that is integral to the show. The script works hard at creating an atmosphere--an atmosphere of the world of jazz. The actors and director get a lot of credit for that atmosphere as well. There was a great deal of commitment to the characters and I especially enjoyed watching Jan Anderson play the part of Terry. She really was outstanding.

Thomas Slovinski likewise did an excellent job of portraying the child caught between the worlds of his parents, unable to create his own life because he is too busy taking care of them. The expression on his face when the final lights go out is priceless and communicates his journey in a manner as strong as any words that he speaks. It's one of those strong, memorable, emotional moments.

My one complaint about his performance is that his interpretation would have me believe that he was born a 30-year-old and never changed in mannerisms, voice, or behavior through the years. I can buy that he was forced into an early emotional maturity; I have more trouble buying that puberty brought no physical changes to him.

I'd also have to agree with Jim Fordyce who wrote that "moving through time is also a problem with the other characters. The three band members and the singer/waitress are exactly the same in each scene, even though their roles span 40 years."

Nonetheless, it's a show that is well worth seeing. It's a story about families, about jazz, and about finding one's own way in life, whether or not people give us what we need. Jack Dowd finely portrays a man who is unable to sustain his momentary interest in human beings because he's too caught up in music.

Warren Leight ends his script on somewhat of a downer note. The main character is insisting that the way of life portrayed in his play is dead and that rock and roll has sounded the death knell for jazz. I'd have to argue with him. Yes, he's right that things have changed and that jazz is not the same today as it was fifty years ago. However, it seems pessimistic to say that because it has changed, the art form has died. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that if it hadn't changed, it would have died?

Maybe you can't go to a jazz concert every weekend night anymore. There are still plenty of options from your mp3 player to frequent concerts throughout the month at places ranging from bars to Wharton's Cobb Great Hall.

Dearly Beloved

As I was working on this entry, I got a call from Linda Granger, the artistic director of Starlight Dinner Theater. They've already sold out for their opening night of Dearly Beloved and are getting close to selling out their second night. That's got to be pretty exciting--to have half your show run close to sold out when you're still a week and a half from opening. They had experimented with adding Sunday shows at one point and dropped them this season. Perhaps they'll be able to swing a third weekend in the future if they keep having such large audiences.

While I risk going off on a tangent that deserves far more than an off-the-cuff comment, I do have to say that Linda has done extremely well at figuring out her target audience and providing shows that they're interested in doing in a location that is convenient for that target market. It's good planning that bodes well for the success of this dinner theater.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Putnam County Spelling Bee

Not too long ago, I was emailed about an opportunity that seemed an incredible opportunity. I was skeptical about whether I would be able to get it, but I made up my mind to go for it.

Every year, there are Neiman Fellowships for mid-career journalists at Harvard. This year they were reserving one of those slots for arts journalists--including freelancers. It's an outstanding program and one that I would love to participate in. As the idea brewed in my mind, I began thinking about research topics and figuring out how my family could rearrange its life to let me leave for nine months.

While there is a stipend for both housing and child care made available, the timing wouldn't be right for our son to have to make a change in his schools, so I'd be leaving him and Richard behind for nine months if I were to be fortunate enough to be selected for the fellowship. Nonetheless, Richard enthusiastically encouraged me to apply.

Then I went to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Wharton Center to review it for the Lansing State Journal. As I stood up after the show, I turned to the friend who had joined me and said, "I'm not going to Harvard."

While I frequently find theater to be compelling, it's rare for it to have such an immediate and drastic effect on my daily decision-making. This show did.

One of the spellers is eagerly and futilely waiting for the arrival of her absent father. Toward the end of the musical, there is a beautiful number in which she longingly sings about both of her absent parents--her father at work and her mother who is off doing an ashram in India. Both parents sing of how they love her and know that she'll do great things, but the fact remains bitingly clear that they are not there. They may think the world of her and they may believe that what they're doing is beneficial for them, for their daughter, and for the family, but they're still apart and missing the important things in each other's lives.

There will be many opportunities throughout my life for many things. Something I will never have another chance at is being a present mother during my son's 10th and 11th year of life.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Weekend Ahead and Ken Glickman

Weekend Events

The winter break is definitely past and the arts are in full swing again around town. Not that it is ever completely quiet, but early January is typically a tad slower than other times of the year.

Side Man opened last night at Riverwalk and continues through this weekend and next. I'm planning to catch the Sunday matinée.

Boeing-Boeing continues for another weekend at Lansing Civic Players. Tom Helma reviewed it for the Pulse.

S'Moves dance concert is being performed tomorrow and Sunday. That's a trio of performers that are dancing to raise money for LCC scholarships. In fact, I can give you what I wrote for my column that had to be cut for space purposes (and because Mike Hughes had already written a fabulous article on them):

Act II: Get into S’moves with Dancing Trio

Roberta Otten-Mason has a story to tell. Several of them, in fact, as do her two co-dancers Rosemary Edgar and John MacDonald.

They’ll be telling the stories this Saturday and Sunday in a modern dance concert that focuses on storytelling and improvisational dancing. It’s the fifth annual S’moves concert in Lansing Community College’s Dart Auditorium and it raises money for dance and theater scholarships.

The hour and 15 minute concert will feature several numbers both choreographed and improvised. In one of the numbers, cards will be passed out the audience. They’ll pick a topic and then Edgar will tell a story while Otten-Mason dances to it.

“What we’re doing on stage, people can identify with on some level in their own life,” Otten-Mason said. “The stories that we tell, people relate to.”

Pianist Barbara Freeman accompanies Some of Edgar’s singing while providing interludes while the three dancers change costumes and catch their breaths. Other numbers include a spoof on Dancing with the Stars and a serious modern dance piece about how people feel trapped and are trying to find the light. MacDonald will dance the latter number while blindfolded.

“John is always an inspiration to men,” Otten-Mason said, “because he is 50 years old, a physician by profession, and he is up there dancing full out. He’s only been studying dance for six or seven years. Men respond very positively to his courage to be out there.”

This year’s concert is dedicated to the fathers of the two female dancers, both of whom passed away last year.

Otten-Mason also offered a teaser about one of the dance numbers. They’re calling it a DT3. “D as in Dance, T as in Talk, and I won’t say what the three is. Come and find out.”

  • Dart Auditorium, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. Free, but donations for scholarships are encouraged.
I'm heading out to see that one on Saturday while tonight I'm going to go to a rehearsal to interview a cast and director for an upcoming column.

Earlier this week, Richard had auditions for the play that he's directing at Waverly High School--Midsummer Night's Dream. He's pretty pleased with the cast he's put together and is excited about the show itself. I love the play and can't wait to see what they do with it.

Ken Glickman is Blogging Again

About a year ago, Ken Glickman, one of my fellow reviewers at the LSJ, started a blog called "GlickArts: Comments on the arts scene in and around Lansing, Michigan and beyond." It was a wonderful blog to read. Ken's writing on instrumental music is simply fabulous. He's so perceptive and writes in a way that really makes the concert come alive. When I read what he writes about a concert, I feel as though I'm sitting at the feet of a master, hoping that a few drops of his talent might land on me.

He'd taken a very lengthy hiatus, but has recently begun making entries again. Go read his commentary on the recent concerts he's been to. It is a wonderful illustration on why you need more than 300 words to review some performances and why reviews can be so critical to publish--even when a concert is a one-time event.

It remains my hope that someday Gannett will realize that arts patrons are readers and that newspapers are bought by people who are readers. The current trend to make everything shorter and in ever-smaller bites is a trend geared toward capturing people who aren't readers--and it is one that turns off and away those people who are readers. It's a trend that trains people not to read you.

Ken Glickman is a local treasure as there are few people who can write about instrumental music with the skill and flair that he does. I wish that we could see more of his reviews in print, but in the mean time, I'll savor reading them online.

Still to come next week:
  • How the Bee kept me from applying to Harvard
  • Upcoming change in my column and features that you can read throughout the year, starting Jan. 31
The latter one I'll talk more extensively about before next Thursday when those changes take effect. I'll also try to chat about Side Man and S'Moves.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Boeing-Boeing and New Year's Resolutions

I'm stealing from Icarus Falling's season theme "back and to the future" as I continue to try to catch up while still talking about what's going on now.


On Friday, I went to see Lansing Civic Players' Boeing-Boeing, directed by Althea Phillips. It's one of those high-energy bedroom farces with some anachronisms that can sometimes be difficult for the modern audience to swallow.

Kat Cooper, Ann Glenn, and Rachelle Garyet did a delightful job portraying the three stewardesses who fly in and out of Bernard's life, all oblivious to the presence of the other fiances. They all fit the part of the attractive, possessive girlfriends while providing wonderful contrast to each other.

LeAnn Dethlefsen was also a great deal of fun to watch as the long-suffering housekeeper who has to do most of the work in keeping up the charade for the polygamous Bernard.

Chris Klaver and Rick Dethlefsen both did find jobs as the school buddies who are trying to keep the women apart. I'll confess that it seemed they should be closer in age to the stewardesses--or at least played that way. I sometimes had difficulty believing that Robert could be quite as innocent and naive as he was or that Bernard was the young playboy type.

The set was well-built with lots of doors representing the kitchen, bathroom and various bedrooms. After the show, I was talking to another patron who pointed out that there was nothing on the set that helped place the action in the 60s except for a lamp that was off to the far side on an unlighted portion of the stage. He had a point. You did have to read the program to know you were in the early 60s unless you knew a lot about your jet history and when certain models were put into commercial use.

Those comments aside, it was an enjoyable show successfully designed to make its patrons laugh and enjoy the high-paced absurdity of this traditionally styled farce.

New Year's Resolutions

This year, I wanted to do something different with my column for New Year's. Actually, it isn't so much that I wanted to do something different as an idea took root in my head and kept growing. I'd been doing a lot of thinking lately about the amount of people who participate in the arts in the local area and the pattern of their participation.

A friend and I noticed that there are some actors who get out to see a lot of shows (the Zussmans are a prime example of this and they get out to see many, many shows). However, as a rule, actors don't seem to go to see a lot of shows unless they know someone in the audience or are actively involved in the administration of the particular theater group. Now, some of this could be simply because they're constantly in rehearsal and need some non-theater time in their lives for balance.

To be honest, I don't know what the reasons for that are, though I could certainly speculate with no ability to verify any of those speculations. Besides, I'm starting to veer off topic.

At any rate, I decided for half of my column, I'd make some suggested New Year's resolutions--ones that would be a lot more fun than losing 20 pounds or investing $10 in the stock market each week. They were ones that I hoped would encourage people to think about how they can be actively involved in or supporting the arts.

So, since I suggested them, I figured I ought to follow my own advice and report here on the progress I've made so far.

Go see a live performance of dance, instrumental music, choral music, opera or theater.

Ah, yes, well, this one isn't a stretch for me. I've so far seen a couple of theatrical shows and will be going to a dance concert this weekend. The one that I really need to work on is instrumental music. I went to only two last year and would like to do better this year.

Get involved in art.

For me, my writing is my art. There was a time when I was involved in theater several years back, particularly with Lansing Civic Players and Bath Community Theatre Guild. However, there came a point when I had to make a choice between whether I was truly going to pursue my writing or continue in theater--at least until my son was grown and I wouldn't be constantly taken away from him. It was a pretty easy choice. I was always far better at writing than I was at theater. I never lost my self-consciousness while on stage.

So while I am no longer working in theater (nor would it be appropriate to do so while being a reviewer and columnist), I do considered myself involved in art by writing about it. My husband also recently unearthed my clarinet. I might be making a trip to Marshall Music to get the pads replaced and start playing again at home.

Support a local arts organization financially.

This is where I get somewhat old-fashioned. I don't talk about my finances in public nor do I like discussing any donations I make. In fact, my most preferred method of giving to any organization is anonymously. So any progress on this goal will not be shared.

Praise a local artist.

Does my husband count? Actually, I'm fortunate because I often get to do this. Yes, as a critic I also sometimes have to point out negative things, but there is always something about a performance that one can find to praise.

Be an advocate for an arts organization.

There is much debate about whether arts journalists should be advocates or purely objective. I fall firmly on the side of advocates. Granted, there is a difference between being an advocate and being a public relations person. Being an advocate doesn't mean ignoring the negative. In fact, a true advocate will not be shy about pointing out things that aren't working or things that detract from the art scene.

Tell someone new about your favorite arts organization.

I suppose on some level, I do this all the time through my column--except that I don't really have a favorite arts organization. Favorite implies a ranking and I am a firm subscriber to the eco-system theory that says each organization plays a vital part in ensuring the success and vitality of arts. I do invite people to join me when I go see performances. It's one of the reasons I'm often grateful that I am offered two tickets when I come to see a show--it gives me a chance to bring someone else along in the hope that he or she will also become a patron of the arts and make live performances part of their lives. It's a small attempt to give back to the arts organizations who so often provide me with tickets so that I can review and judge their shows.

Take pride in your local community's art scene.

That's an easy one. I already do and don't hesitate to share that pride.

Take a child or a teenager to a live performance.

I haven't done that yet this year, but I do try to make a habit of taking not just my son, but the children of my friends to shows whenever it is appropriate (and it isn't always appropriate).

Encourage a child or a teenager to perform.

My opportunities to do this have decreased somewhat as I no longer teach drama at Montessori--and man, I miss those kids. In the mean time, I continue to encourage my son as he takes up the coronet and continues to dabble in theater.

Friday, January 18, 2008

WILS and Peppermint Creek

No, not both of those together, but I figured that since I'm so far behind on my writing and the list of what I want to blog about keeps getting longer and longer, that I'd blog about one old thing and one new thing.

WILS End-of-year show

Jim Fordyce is a regular guest on Jack Ebling's Friday night WILS 1320 AM radio show where they talk movies and entertainment each week. On the final Friday of the year, Jack was off watching the MSU Bowl game, so Jim invited me to join him to talk about theater.

Now, despite having a degree in journalism and having been a media person all my life, I've never been on the radio or television before. (I managed to substitute the 200-level broadcast course with a graduate-level journalism law and ethics course--I was pretty dedicated to print journalism then and now.)

I found I enjoyed it a great deal, though as usual I overprepared and left with a whole list of shows that I wasn't able to talk about. If I ever find my notes, I'll write here about the shows that I had listed as some of the most intriguing shows of 2007. They weren't the ones that I would have called the "best," but they were ones that stuck with me because of the interesting things that they either attempted or achieved. They were the sort of shows that keep me constantly fascinated by the theater that goes on in town.

And if you would like to hear what we did talk about on that snowy afternoon, Jim has posted a recording of the show here. It's the Dec. 27 show.

Peppermint Creek: A New Brain

Last night I went to see A New Brain. It's a very well-performed show that frequently had me tearing up. It's a very intense show--as are most of PCT's shows--and was often heart-wrenching, not unlike William Finn's other show, The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee.

Of course, now that I've started to write this, I realize I'm really not ready to write about it yet. I'd prefer to do some more thinking first. A few random observations about it, though:

  • Just to be contrary, I don't think I would call this a comedy at all. I would call it an absurdist drama.
  • Nathanial Nose, the actor who plays Roger, the main character's lover, called it a comedy without a punchline. That's actually a pretty good descriptor as well.
  • William Finn has a thing about fat. Then again, he's from New York, so I suppose it must be excused. It was interesting because I'd recently read an article at Utne Reader about attitudes toward fat and had been contemplating about how little this cultural obsession had made it into our arts. How quickly wrong I was shown!
  • There were times, especially in the beginning, when it was hard to hear the voices of the singers despite the fact that I was in the front row. The music was just a few notches too loud--even for how strong these voices were.
  • There are some wonderful alterations in the music from beginning to end.
  • It's easy to see why some believed that William Finn might be the successor to Sondheim. There were several elements that seemed Sondheim-inspired, even though he isn't quite as dark and quirky, nor does his music seem quite as difficult to sing. The vast majority of the play, however is sung.
  • I appreciate how very real and relatable (yes, I know, that's not a word--but you know what I mean by it, right?) all of Finn's characters are, even when they are stereotypes.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Back to Blogging

Hello out there--to any faithful readers who have stuck by through my rather lengthy hiatus.

I have one book done and most of the chapters written for the other one. Only one and a half more to go and the first drafts will be completed. It's slowly freeing up the other portions of my brain to go back to the world of theater and the arts.

My goal for 2009 is to not use up my vacation time at work doing freelance work.

But enough about me and back to theater.

It's been a busy few months in the local theater world with lots of wonderful shows being performed. I was fortunate enough to catch Moonlight and Magnolias at BoarsHead, Reindeer Monologues at Ledges Playhouse/Creole, Rumpelstiltskin at Riverwalk, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Wharton, Macbeth at Lansing Community College, Sunny Jazz and Holiday Memories at the Ruhala Center, and some musical concerts.

This weekend I'm planning to catch A New Brain at Peppermint Creek and Boeing Boeing at Lansing Civic Players before joining my parents for a joint anniversary celebration.

Now, rather than shove all my news into one blog entry and have nothing to write about tomorrow or Tuesday, I'm going to tease instead. In the next several entries I'll visit these topics:
  • End-of-year radio show done with Jim Fordyce at WILS
  • New Year's resolutions for the arts--my progress
  • One of our local treasures is blogging again with symphony reviews
  • How the Bee kept me from applying to Harvard
  • Upcoming change in my column and features that you can read throughout the year, starting Jan. 31