REVIEW: Little Shop of Horrors

2:00pm • Sunday, November 20, 2022 • Power Center

I’m so glad I had the opportunity to experience Little Shop of Horrors, presented at the Power Center this weekend by MUSKET. The performance began before the lights dimmed, as Chiffon (Arin Francis), Crystal (Maya Mcentyre), and Ronnette (Gilayah McIntosh) wandered the auditorium, interacting with the crowd. Eventually they disappeared backstage, only to reappear along with the rest of the cast, to open the performance with “Skid Row.” From that point onward I was continually impressed by the talent and personality of each actor. Forming the chorus, Francis, Mcentyre, and McIntosh were reliable throughout their performance both for their solid harmonies and for their affectionately eye-rolling reactions to Seymore and Audrey. In addition to his role as Orin Scrivello, Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, Caleb McArthur scrambled onstage in at least four other mini-roles, creating fresh personas for each. I appreciated the way that Michael Fabisch threw himself into the awkwardness required for the role of Seymore. And Mr. Mushnik, played by Dylan Bernstein, was a perfect drama queen.

My favorite human role was definitely Audrey, played by Mackenzie Mollison. In the beginning of the show, Audrey is trapped in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, and while in “Somewhere that’s Green” she dreams of living a simple life in a suburban development, she doesn’t believe she deserves to be loved by someone kind. Mollison brought humor to the role with her excellent comedic timing without oversimplifying the show’s darker themes of abuse and self-hatred. Her powerful voice seemed subtly restrained throughout the performance to reflect Audrey’s situation: occasionally bursting out in full spirit but quickly stifled again.

The shameless Audrey II, however, voiced by Morgan Gomes, resisted all restraints. Gomes, while only appearing onstage in person for the final curtain call, defined the performance with her spectacular voice. The plant only begins speaking mid-way through the performance, but when Gomes’ voice finally echoed through the theater, I saw jaws drop.

Engineering the evil plant itself is notoriously difficult, and MUSKET pulled it off with humor and style. In its first form, the Audrey II was a single, tentacle-like shoot with a little flower at the tip that Seymore slung around the shop during “Grow for Me.” Upon the plant’s entrance, I figured this first edition was too small for the team to have bothered animating–but to my surprise, in response to the characters’ lines, it drooped, perked up, and even nodded, all without any visible assistance or puppeteering from onstage. As Audrey II continued to grow throughout the show, I never noticed the stage crew replacing it or making adjustments, which is doubly impressive for such a large and mobile prop. The choice to have Audrey II consume its prey by sucking them into its stem resulted in some entertaining visuals: because the shape of the plant was vaguely humanoid, we seemed to watch Orin, Mr. Mushnik, Audrey, and finally Seymore disappear between the plant-being’s “legs.”

Overall, a big congratulations to everyone involved in putting together this fun rendition of Little Shop of Horrors. I encourage everyone who missed the performance to consider buying tickets to MUSKET’s winter semester show, A Chorus Line. I can guarantee that I will be in the audience.

REVIEW: THE MUSIC OF STUDIO GHIBLI

There was already a line of anxious concert goers waiting to get into the Michigan Theater when I arrived a half an hour early to the event. I joined the bundled up crowd as we slowly made our way into the theater to escape the cold. There was a line inside to take a photograph with Totoro, one of the main mystical forest creatures from the animated film, My Neighbor Totoro. Totoro looked positively adorable in his little round, gray and white costume, happily posing for pictures with the audience. Needless to say, I had to get a picture myself before finding my seat. The stage was set up with three movie posters suspended from the ceiling, showcasing what soundtracks would be performed  that night. I was particularly excited to listen to Spirited Away. 

I expected the orchestra to perform admirably, as it was the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra after all. However, I wasn’t expecting the music to sound like it was a professional recording of  the movie itself. As the orchestra played, I could imagine every scene of the film as it unfolded and if I closed my eyes, I could almost believe that the film itself was being projected onto the stage. It was an amazing performance, made even more so by the quick comedic quips from Wilbur Lin who conducted the symphony that night. Lin also took the opportunity between soundtracks to give a little history about each of the pieces  that the symphony was performing, which I’d never experienced before. I found it fascinating to learn a little more about the music behind Studio Ghibli.

The best part of the night however was just before the final piece of music was performed when Lin suddenly left the stage. The audience was perplexed to say the least. There were murmurs all around the room questioning what was happening. There hadn’t been an intermission listed on the brochure, but that was the only possible reason I could think for the conductor to have walked off stage. However, it wasn’t long before someone returned, not Lin, but Totoro! The rotund creature clambered his way up to the stage, baton in paw, before taking his rightful place in front of the symphony. He lifted his arm dramatically as the audience instantly hushed and then…chaos ensued. Totoro tried his absolute best, much to the audiences enjoyment, but it turns out that forest spirits probably aren’t the best suited to conduct a symphony orchestra. Totoro was soon dragged off stage and Lin returned to finish out the concert, though it took a fair moment for the audiences giggles to subside.

It was a fantastic experience, the conductor and the symphony, but Totoro stole the show.

REVIEW: Berliner Philharmoniker (Saturday Program)

8:30pm • Saturday, November 19, 2022 • Hill Auditorium

Seeing the Berlin Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 on Saturday night was nostalgic for me, despite never having seen them perform previously. Back in early September, I vaguely recognized the name of the orchestra on the UMS season schedule as one of my younger brother’s favorites. He is still in high school, and lives several hours away, but when I texted him that the Berlin Philharmonic was coming to Ann Arbor, he flew into action coordinating travel plans with our parents while I bought us two student tickets. This weekend, he and my parents drove through blizzards down from northern Michigan to see the performance and kick off Thanksgiving break.

On the night of the performance, my brother and I waited anxiously in the crowded lobby of Hill Auditorium for the doors to open, and in our seats we people-watched together, with a particular eye to the eccentric winter gear of some of the older patrons. During the performance, we excitedly nudged one another whenever we heard a flute (his instrument) or clarinet (mine) playing solos, and we both fangirled obsessively over the showy flutter-tonguing of the flute in the fourth movement.

I am not an expert in music, orchestras, arranging, or conducting, but this performance was captivating for me because of the way live music engages my imagination, eases the flow of my thoughts in new directions, and awakens moments from my past to be interpreted in new ways. I have read that Symphony No. 7 seeks to represent the transition from night to day, drawing from nature. There were moments where the music made me think of a slumbering hive of honeybees beginning to stir, or the midnight walk of a lone coyote across moonlit snow. At intervals, I drifted into memories of my childhood, time spent listening to and playing my own music. Listening to the Berlin Philharmonic flow through the symphony’s five movements became a process of listening for the memories evoked by each melody.

Seeing the Berlin Philharmonic perform reminded me of music and artistry as a common thread weaving throughout my life, connecting me with my family and my memories. It also reminded me to be grateful for the advantages afforded my by attending a school like the University of Michigan, and the privilege of being able to share the arts here with my family. The performance helped me reconnect with the joy that comes with experiencing music, and my first evening upon returning home for Thanksgiving break saw me digging my old etude books out from among my mom’s stacks of piano music and brushing the dust off of my clarinet case.

REVIEW: Berliner Philharmoniker (Friday Program)

One thing my childhood piano teacher of twelve years always told me was that a good performance made you feel taken care of. If you feel nervous on stage, so does your audience. If you are comfortable, the natural rise and fall of the music emerges and your listeners can comfortably breathe along each phrase. 

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of seeing the Berlin Philharmonic play at the Hill Auditorium. Pen and notebook in hand, I was reminded of my teacher’s words when the pages stubbornly remained relatively blank. When faced with the golden standard of the orchestral world, I suddenly found it very difficult to come up with any constructive comments. For the concert’s two-hour duration spanning raucous 21st-century sounds to Mozart’s pristine motifs, all I could do was sit back and think: this is so nice.

As the orchestra members made their way to their seats, I was surprised to see the second violins and cellos settle down in each other’s usual sections, with the basses gathered on the left side of the stage behind the cellos. While this seating arrangement made sense for the Mozart concerto later in the program, it was interesting to hear it used for Unstuck, a recent composition by Michigan native Andrew Norman. It is difficult to describe what happens in the piece–eerie, yet beautiful melodies are sandwiched between messy, frantic climaxes. Blurry tutti slides carry the listener from one idea to the next to the point where you forget where the piece even started. I rarely get a good view of the basses when I watch concerts, but this time around I was able to observe how they were constantly employed to add subtle, textural elements–slaps, snaps, dry scrubbing–to the ensemble.

Next up was the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major performed by concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley. I don’t typically listen to Mozart over other composers, but Bendix-Balgley’s interpretation felt like a return to the fundamentals and allowed me to appreciate his music. His solo part was impeccably clean and sweet with a bell-like quality. The hardest part of playing Mozart is to make it sound effortless–both the ensemble and soloist mastered this element. The candenzas, written by Bendix-Balgley himself, were complex and brilliant.

Concluding the concert was the Korngold Symphony in F-Sharp Major. There is a lot of discourse surrounding Korngold and his validity as a serious composer due to his career writing music for films–an argument I find silly. The cinematic lushness and bold tuttis give the piece a distinct mood, while the free-spirited clarinet solo at the beginning of the first movement introduces an engaging story of conflict and resolution throughout the work. 

Part of the reason why the Berlin Phil is able to produce such a distinct sound is the combination of intense coordination and soloistic playing. By matching the exact speed and positions of each bow, the strings are able to meld together and mask any sense of bowings. I can only hope that everyone could have the chance to hear them perform live because it is truly a magnificent experience.

PREVIEW: Little Shop of Horrors

What: a comedy horror musical, brought to UM by the student theater company MUSKET

When: 

  • Friday, November 18, 8:00pm
  • Saturday, November 19, 8:00pm
  • Sunday, November 20, 2:00pm

Where: Power Center

Tickets: $7 for students, $13 for adults, available online, at the MUTO ticket office, by phone, or at the box office 1 hr before the performance. More details linked here.

Little Shop of Horrors is a Broadway musical in which Seymore, a nerdy plant shop assistant, pines hopelessly after his coworker, Audrey. The plot revolves around a strange plant, named Audrey II, which Seymore discovers will bring business and popularity to the failing shop–if only it is fed with flesh and blood! The show is produced by MUSKET, one of the university’s longest-running student theater companies. The organization produces two shows each year in the Power Center, and has tackled both classic and contemporary performances such as West Side Story, Oklahoma, Hairspray, and Rent. Scanning photos of past performances, I am blown away by their evident production value, and I can see how MUSKET represents a Michigan legacy of passionate, skilled students and their dedication to the arts. I look forward to getting a glimpse of this legacy during the Sunday performance tomorrow, and hope others will consider picking up tickets at MUTO for the darkly funny, campy experience that is Little Shop of Horrors.

PREVIEW: midst of a moment

What: a dance concert featuring the choreography of four seniors in the Bachelor of Fine Arts, presented by the University of Michigan Department of Dance.

When: 

  • Thursday, November 17, 8:00pm
  • Friday, November 18, 8:00pm
  • Saturday, November 19, 8:00pm

Where: Performance Studio Theatre at 1000 Baits Dr, Ann Arbor, MI, 48109, also available via livestream

Tickets: free at door 1 hour before the performance

This dance concert will honor the artistry of four seniors: Katey Besser, Isabella Payne, Jack Randel, and Brooke Taylor. The program consists of eight works choreographed by the students, including solos featuring each senior. More information, sourced from promotional material for the event, is provided below. The artists’ work draws from a colorful array of themes, each dance infused with the unique passions of their respective choreographers. I look forward to experiencing the synergy generated among these eight pieces, and hope you find time to attend one of the group’s three performances this week.

Program:

“Katey Besser’s A Place We’ve Seen Before, explores protection through a kaleidoscopic expression of togetherness and unity. A multi-media performance, this piece includes screen dance and live performance from varying points of view. Besser’s solo, Light Where She Wanted, embraces the multilayered experiences of past and present.

“In for what remains, Isabella Payne draws inspiration from the aesthetics and haunting regality of Gothic architecture with more commercialized styles of contemporary and Hip Hop dance. Payne’s solo, I Thought You Might Want To Know, contemplates the fragility and impermanence of life.

“Jack Randel’s solo, Loop, confronts how the comfort of dailiness can be a mask for psychological ups and downs. Randel’s Hypnosis, visualizes the journey of finding a way back to an authentic version of oneself in a dreamlike trance.

“Brooke Taylor’s Almost Till, breathes life and movement into a memory from her grandmother’s past of southern Mississippi in the 1930s. Taylor’s solo, Ode to Bea, honors Beatrice Cochran’s struggles and triumphs during the mid 1900s. Both works uncover the reality of racism, violence, survival, and resilience.”

(source: SMTD Department of Dance)