PREVIEW: Legally Blonde

Everyone’s favorite Harvard lawyer is coming to the Power Center with MUSKET’s production of Legally Blonde: The Musical. The story of our beloved blonde, Elle Woods, has taken the stage all over the country, and Ann Arbor will get to enjoy this fun, upbeat musical and follow her journey of self-discovery on March 22-24. Tickets can be bought at www.ummusket.org or at the MUTO in the League Underground.

REVIEW: Merrily We Roll Along

Everyone wants success, but at what costs? The storyline of Merrily We Roll Along isn’t anything revolutionary or extraordinary, and the conflicts of the musical are pretty predictable, but the deeper meaning behind the storyline is still profound. Frank Shepard’s desire for money and success ruins the relationships that mean the most to him, and as we see the moments in his life that acted as either subtle pathways or dramatic turning points, we reflect on our youth and hope for a brighter future.

Runyonland Productions took an in-concert approach to this Sondheim musical. Providing a vibrant blast of music onstage, the 12-member orchestra music directed by Brian Rose and conducted by Tyler Driskill brought Sondheim’s score to life. The company’s transition in between the years, the title song “Merrily We Roll Along,” was a catchy melody that conveys the theme of the musical. The entire cast’s performance was pretty spectacular, but if I had to pick just one outstanding number, it would be Emilie Kouatchou’s strong and heartbreaking performance of “Not a Day Goes By,” one of Sondheim’s greatest songs about lost love.

However, all the songs were performed brilliantly, such as Charley’s breakdown on air with “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” a frantic song with dire consequences. Due to illness, Thomas Laub provided the voice of Charley while Wilson Plonk acted onstage. This unexpected change didn’t deter from the production much, and the performances of both Plonk and Laub are to be applauded. Erica Ito, who played Mary, also sang powerfully and captivated the audience with every note sung and drunken word slurred as she desperately tries to keep her closest friends together.

Liam Allen captured Frank Shepard’s confusion and regret in his later years in a somber way, as well as his selfish vanity and ego in his youth with a relatable aspirational mindset. As he continues to make poor choices that ruin his relationships with his wives and friends, you can see the toll it takes on Frank, who carries less weight on his shoulders with each retrospecting scene.

The very last scenes of the musical captures Frank in his early 20s, an age that many college students can relate to. With a bright-eyed optimism and naive hope, they sing about conquering each day and crafting their lives the way they want. Though the stories of Frank, Charley, and Mary end poorly, “Our Time” is still an anthem of hope for the future. By watching this musical, it is important to recognize that hopes and dreams don’t necessarily evolve in a positively linear path to success. It can be messy, and there may be pain and regrets along the way, but as we can learn from Frank’s life, it’s never too late to take responsibility for your actions and choices, and it’s possible to reach success both professionally and personally without sacrificing one for the other. If there’s one thing to take away from this musical, it’s to never lose sight of what’s important.

REVIEW: The Exonerated

The American criminal justice system is not perfect. Far from it. In fact, you can even say that the American criminal justice system is not just. The Exonerated tells the story of six wrongfully convicted people on death row using first-hand accounts, as well as court transcripts, letters, and interviews.

We meet Kerry Max Cook, Gary Gauger, Robert Earl Hayes, Sunny Jacobs, David Keaton, and Delbert Tibbs. They start by telling us about their lives, about how things were before their lives changed forever. They take turns sitting in the spotlight and introducing themselves and the nature of the crimes they were accused of, with occasional and brief flashbacks acted out. They narrate what led up to it, about how they weren’t even close to the scene of the crime, yet they were accused and arrested and berated by police officers. They were all convenient victims as suspects for these crimes, tricked into confessing and easily disposable.

Their harrowing experiences in prison, waiting for death row, was painful to hear. Listening to Cook’s account about how his imprisonment affected his older brother particularly stung, reminding us that these people, who aren’t even criminals, are still people, with families and feelings and a life outside of the prison walls even if we forget that. Sunny Jacobs’s gentle and innocent personality especially reminds us of their humanity, something that the justice system robbed them of but they managed to keep, even after the injustices they suffered. Eventually, they tell us how they were exonerated, but only after they paid the price with many years lost and many losses suffered.

Andrew Cekala’s portrayal as Kerry, the fast-talking Texan, was very amicable and easygoing, just as Maddie Eaton gave Sunny a bright and sunny personality. Similarly, Jacob Smith as Gary, Chris Washington as David, and Lee Alexander as Robert all made their characters warm and distinct. Delbert Tibbs, portrayed by Mason Reeves, acted as a powerful narrator and common thread among all the stories, listening to Sunny’s account of her strength at the very end. The entire cast delivered a moving performance through all the nuances of their characters and their situations.

All the characters remained onstage the entire play, sitting in their chairs on the side while listening intensely to the person in the spotlight whose story is being told. The simplicity of the set, with nothing more than a couple boxes and plenty of chairs, let us focus on the stories they were telling. The movement was also simple, the characters moving their chairs and shifting positions throughout the play, sometimes accompanied by the cast’s quiet yet powerful humming. The sound of the gentle rain and the shifting colors of the background gave a sense of growing uneasiness and eerie calmness at the same time.

The stories of these wrongful convictions shows how the justice system fails its people, and it touches on race and the death penalty and how we need to rethink such things. This play is extremely thought-provoking and important to watch and even more important to remember. SMTD’s production of this documentary play reminds us how relevant and timeless this work is. Though the sentences in the play took place during the 20th century, there are plenty of people still waiting to be exonerated today, and we walk away from this play with those people in mind.

PREVIEW: Merrily We Roll Along

Runyonland Productions, Ann Arbor’s new theater company, is bringing Sondheim’s iconic Merrily We Roll Along to the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater as a staged concert production. The musical revolves around Franklin Shepard, starting with the peak of his songwriting career and moving backwards in time to show the big moments of his life and the choices he and his friends made that led to the present. Showtimes are February 28 and March 1 at 7:30 PM and tickets can be bought online at https://runyonland.ticketleap.com/merrily/.

REVIEW: The Ark’s 32nd Annual Storytelling Festival

In The Ark’s 32nd year of its storytelling festival, we were graced with a mix of personal and traditional tales from three wonderful performers. Each storyteller had their own style of storytelling, all of which were appealing and intriguing and full of lessons to be learned.

Ivory Williams of Detroit started the night off with his stories that very much involved the audience. He started with a story about God’s creation and dispersal of people, putting the best people in Ann Arbor obviously. His story about a monster blocking the bridge highlighted the meaning behind obstacles, which you don’t always have to fight with force, since they are meant to be embraced. The young girl of the story, who embraced the monster and become successful in life, did the two most important things a successful person must do: she returned to her village to share what she learned, and she told stories. The morals of kindness and love guided Williams’s stories, and his use of repetition tied the story nicely together, making it twice as nice and twice as powerful.

Next was Edgar Oliver, who had a very timid yet enthralling voice, as he performed for us snippets of his shows and some pieces of poetry as well. His vivid imagery and meticulous details of his stories set the stage for some absurd twist in the story that he delivered with such deadpan emotion, the audience loved it. From the albino watermelons trapped under a swimming pool to the trash can goddess and his love for red wine to the trampling pig, Oliver regaled us with his very distinct storytelling. He took us all over the world, telling us stories about his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, his time spent in France, and his life in New York City. His stories were sprinkled with entertaining comedy, though there was a hint of sadness and regret in the last snippet from a show he’s still writing; however, through his words and stories, Victor lives on in his memories and in ours.

Finally, Laura Simms finished the night with her love stories, which took on a variety of forms. She told us about the fairy she met on the New York City subway, and the time she saw Nina Simone perform, which was the first time she fell in love with the world. Then, she told a long and humorous story about a prince’s long and desperate journey looking for true love, emphasizing the importance of true companionship. She ended with the story of her mother’s seal skin coat and the powers it had in transferring good to the world.

Williams, Oliver, and Simms all captivated the audience with their engaging words and stories. Their stories taught us to think about the good in ourselves and in others, and to look for true love in every moment of our lives. This wonderful tradition at The Ark gives the people of Ann Arbor a night of entertainment filled with kindness and love through the simple power of words. As Williams repeated throughout the night, stories must be told.

REVIEW: Love and Information

What’s the purpose of life if not to find love and learn information? “Love and Information” features many short vignettes of everyday life, showing scenes everyone can relate with to some extent. With the anonymous characters running around onstage, there is a universality of the scenes that makes everything connect. The play explores different variances of love and methods of information as the characters struggle to gain information and connect with others.

The title of each vignette aptly described the main point of a scene. Words such as “secret”, “remote”, “silence”, “dream”, “privacy”, “children”, and “facts” convey the information within that scene in a succinct way, while giving some frame of reference so the audience isn’t completely lost. The reoccurrence of certain themes, such as the child who didn’t know certain emotions, brought an underlying thread between these vignettes that might otherwise be hard to connect.

The 18-person SMTD cast embodied all the characters wonderfully, slipping into one persona only to run offstage and return as someone completely different, though the intrinsic drives of that person remain the same. This show, written in 2012, remains completely contemporary, featuring the latest dance moves and songs and all the current trends. The presence of screens on cell phones and televisions is also prominent, a modern source of constant information, one that can invade our privacy and also steal our attention.

The stark contrasts of some of the scenes leave a stronger resonance. One character has perfect memory and can recall any detail of any date, while another character can no longer recognize his own wife. One character suddenly and happily remembers a vivid memory of his dad during a memory game, while another character is traumatized by a flashback they wish they never remembered. Information is fleeting, and it can also be absolute.

The same can be said of love. Affairs can mean the end of something great, or the start of something better. As one vignette points out, sex is a way of transferring and creating information through an act of love, connecting the title of this play neatly.

The play ponders the question of science, philosophy, religion, mathematics, politics, and humanity — everything that gives us thought, forms our personalities, and makes us human. The characters range from children to elders, and it also touches on mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and attempted suicides.

One of the most appealing aspects of the play was the scenery, set designs, and costumes. Each separate scene was distinguished by its color, and all the props and clothing accessories that appeared in the scene emphasized this distinct feature. With a chilling white backdrop surrounded by white boxes and actors in all white clothing to start with, the evolving and uniforming color schemes around this base neutral color brought life to this play.

Love and information can bring great joy and meaning to our lives. However, loss and pain are also facets of love, just as information can be painful and lost just as easily. This play leaves us trying to make sense of the universe, our existence, our relationships, and our daily lives.