REVIEW: The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon was a wonderful production, put on by Broadway in Detroit at the Fisher Theatre. It is undeniable that the stage was almost glowing throughout the entire show. The bright lights and set decor were a defining part of the experience, giving it the livelihood that such a musical, with compelling identities and enthusiastic characters, deserves. The vibrant colors of the costumes further complemented these strong production aspects, while also playing well into building the separate identities of the characters. The animated performances of the cast were obviously doing the heavy-lifting. Between the identifiable characters, the strong choreography, or the catchy, witty tunes, the cast managed to bring life to the entire show.
For people who are unfamiliar with the show, here it is: two 19-year-old mormon missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Young, are sent out to Uganda for their first two year mission, and it’s not what they expected. Price had hoped to be sent to Orlando Florida, and follower Young just wanted to be Price’s sidekick – but instead he ends up converting many Ugandans on his own terms. Through their adventures with religion, culture, and interaction, the show expresses satire, and sometimes even deeper emotion.
My favorite parts of the show would have to be the songs “Baptize Me” and “Joseph Smith, American Moses” and the choreography. In the former, Elder Young goes through the process of baptizing Nabulungi, which is full of sexual implications. I think I loved this one because Young is such a charismatic character – he brings many laughs to the show, while also forcing the audience to empathize with him because of his low self-esteem. In the latter, the villagers put on a show for the Mormon missionaries, which is entertaining thanks to the juxtaposition between the Ugandans and the Americans reaction. The choreography is a major part of the show, paying tribute to all different genres and parts of musical history. Such complexity and variety from song to song is refreshing, fun, and completely classic. I guess it’d be foolish to expect anything but hyper-theatricality, even if it is a show focused on Mormons in Uganda.
The only issue I had with the show was, well, the show. I knew that it was somewhat controversial, but generally hailed as a brilliant production. However, as I sat through the first act, it took me some time to warm up to the jokes and feel comfortable with them. This is not because I don’t like or am not used to comedy – I love it. And beyond that, find it to be an extremely effective means, specifically when battling confusing identities, ones that are often stereotyped or oppressed. Comedy is awesome. But for some reason, the portrayal of the Ugandans, an imperative part of the show, was not cutting it for me. And despite having thought and read about the story, I still cannot put my finger on what exactly turned me off. It could be due to the current climate our world is in – one where outlandish, seemingly ridiculous ideas that appeared and functioned as jokes are finding their footing in societies that are supposed to be increasingly “progressive” and “forward-moving.” It could be a variety of reasons, objective or subjective. I’m toying with ideas here, still trying to understand why I didn’t love my matinee musical experience quite as much as I hoped that I would. Instead I’ve been left as a slightly confused google-searcher and review-hunter.
However, I saw that by the second act, as a whole, the Ugandans were more humanized and credible. They knew that everything Young was spewing to them, about kissing frogs to cure AIDS and yatta yatta, was metaphors. And by the end of the show, we’re on a positive note again, just as hopeful as Elder Price was at the beginning when he hoped to be sent to Orlando, acknowledging the importance of religion and beliefs to many people, no matter their differences. All in all, I’d say The Book of Mormon is a put-together production worth seeing, and one worth taking a more critical look at, too.

REVIEW: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

“I wish to lose all morals, and accept decadence into my heart.”

The night starts off with crowds of people in sparkles and lingerie and all black  piled up outside of the Michigan Theater, eager to begin their Rocky Horror experience. An experience that is varied and cannot be restricted by just one adjective. An experience that is energetic, erotic, campy, and…. scientific?

With an introduction from a moth, who welcomes all of the groups who are out – the straights, the gays, the sorrorities – the crowd is riled up before the film has started. Prohibited items include: ice, confetti, water guns, candles or lighters, whole rolls of toilet paper, hot dogs, and prunes. But the moth pointed out that squares of toilet paper, or streamers, or 3/4 of a roll of toilet paper, are allowed. It is only the Leather Medusa’s second year putting on a shadow cast show of RHPS at the theater, but they’re sold out.

I stand for my virgin pledge, with about half of the audience who are marked with red lipstick Vs. Surprisingly, such a prominent cult classic still remains unseen by many. Not so surprisingly, the Rocky Horror virgins of the world are curious about the film and its culture, intrigued by its ostentatious reputation and loyal followers. And tonight, our curiosity is to be fulfilled. Soon everyone stands together, for the Rocky Horror pledge and with much anti… cipation – the show begins.

Newly engaged Brad and Janet get stuck in the rain, and wander into Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s castle, where they have a long night ahead of them. The shadow cast saunters around the stage, their costumes and movements perfectly matching those of the film’s characters. The audience yells “ASSHOLE!” at Brad, “SLUT!” at Janet, “WHERE’S YOUR NECK?” at the criminologist, and a variety of other more specific, seemingly-scripted, comments. The film can barely be heard. This culture is not exactly for the prude or sensitive – although they are the ones that the culture loves to deflower the most. Similarly to the audience culture around Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room’, some describe this movie-going experience as wildly inconsiderate and vulgar. But the lines of accepted norms are blurred in the midst of such a cult classic, one that drew counterculture crowds as a midnight movie at its release and still draws those audiences (or those who shapeshift into such for a night) today.

Attempting to watch the film over the yelling of the crowd, I do my best to stay in-tune while actively participating. But the participation doesn’t take away from the film’s grandeur. The unusual set, defined characters, theatrical costumes and makeup, peculiar sci-fi characteristics, lively songs and dances, canted angles, effective use of various lenses, irony, and sexual notions, are enough to interest audiences even when they are unclear of the plot (which is somewhat unclear, anyway.) I’m sure all of the other virgins sometimes sat just as confused as me, but also pleasantly entertained.

Seeing Rocky Horror is a uniting experience: the audience, together, are just as important as the film. Dancing the time warp, throwing cards and pieces of toast, everyone is in tune with one another. Even the virgins. We catch on. If all goes as planned by the Transylvanians, by the end of the film you’re going to want to dance and yell and touch everyone and be covered in sequins and dramatic makeup.

REVIEW: Company Wang Ramirez’s Borderline

Company Wang Ramirez’s performance of Borderline was a breathtaking rendition of how dance can be used to express the metaphor of human connection.  The show began with Alister Mazzotti, the dancer in charge of lifts and rigging, moving the metal cube shown in the featured image into position.  He stood onstage, dressed in all black, for what seemed like a little too long.  Truth be told, the duration of his still, silent position made me a little uncomfortable.  To be fair, that was the point.  Instead of the box simply being a prop the dancers used onstage, it became the Box.  What did it mean?

I had a working theory throughout the performance.  When inside the box, dancers were together.  They were never alone, save one exception.  During this exception, a single dancer hooked up to the aerial rigging system floated through and manipulated the Box so that it was standing on its corner, balancing on the dancer’s rigging line.  Any dance numbers performed inside the Box became reminiscent of life inside structured society.  Compared to the solo dances performed outside the Box, movements were controlled.  The aerial solo display inside the Box reminded me of climbing up a corporate hierarchy, the illusion of floating akin to the euphoria of financial success.

Dances outside the Box, however, really defined the purpose of Borderline.  When performing duets, the dancers played at defying gravity.  They balanced on each other and pulled one another’s bodies in seemingly impossible contortions.  They used two bodies and used human contact to create a singular, fluid body.  Once their partner left them alone, though, the solo dancer’s movements would become frantic.  Still gorgeous, of course, but definitely angrier.  If you’re familiar with Martha Graham, one performance by Honji Wang reminded me of Witch Dance (in costume, emotion, and in choreography).

To me, the message of Borderline was the importance of human social connection.  Dancers needed each other if they happened to find themselves outside the Box.  When alone, they seemed to lose their way.  All of this was displayed with impeccable talent and control on the part of the dancers.

In terms of tech, the team was astounding.  The lighting designer, Cyril Mulon, had incredible talent when it came to outlining shapes.  At times, the dancers appeared to be wreathed in fire.  Other times, the movement of light exaggerated and complemented the choreography onstage.

This choreography couldn’t have been possible without Mazzotti.  Close to the end of the performance, Mazzotti remained visible onstage.  Wang was hooked up to the rigging system.  We got to watch Mazzotti lift Wang into flight.  He became a part of choreography.  The upper body strength necessary to keep that up for 70 minutes is unimaginable.

My only criticism would be the surprising use of dialogue on the dancers’ part.  Out of nowhere, two dancers started having a conversation about rice.  While it seemed out of place and almost tarnishing the authenticity of the performance up until then, the meaning made sense once the dialogue reached its end.  The message was this: people need some sort of energy – negative or positive – to retain their vitality.  The dialogue served to reinforce the need for human relationships in today’s world.

I found the message of Borderline beautiful.  The ability to express the depth of human interaction through (mostly) the movement of the body was very emotional to watch.  While some aspects of the performance didn’t make as much sense to me, thinking outside the box (pun intended) is a defining feature of modern art itself.

PREVIEW: Company Wang Ramirez’s Borderline

Check out Company Wang Ramirez at The Power Center on Friday, March 9 at 8:00 PM and on Saturday, March 10 at 8:00 PM.  The performance is about 70 minutes long.  There will also be a Q&A after tomorrow night’s performance.

Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang are a part of the 6 person dance crew which will perform Borderline.  Other dancers include Louis Becker, Johanna Faye, Saïdo Lehlouh, and Alister Mazzotti.

Ramirez and Wang both have a passion for experimentation even though they come from very different training and personal backgrounds.  The dancers will be attached to an aerial rigging system.  According to their blurb on the UMS website, their goals will be to enact “visual metaphors of flight, struggle, freedom, constraint, and the forces that connect us and tear us apart.”  L’Indépendant has characterized Company Wang Ramirez as a crucial part of the “contemporary dance revolution.”

I am incredibly excited to see this show!  If you are able to attend and wish to download a program on your own device, check it out here.

REVIEW: Dancing Globally

Before Dancing Globally, I hadn’t been to a modern dance performance in years. It had been so long that I honestly couldn’t really even remember what to expect. When the lights dimmed, I looked over at my friend in the darkness and grinned, with the excited feeling of being on the first side of a mystery.

As soon as the curtains opened, both of us could tell we were in for something exciting. The first performance, probably my favorite of the four, featured a semicircle of dancers wearing suits. Each dancer had a chair that they used as kind of a prop, and throughout most of the performance, hardly anyone moved very far away from their chair. This is part of what made the choreography so creative: not only were they interacting with the chairs in unique ways, they also managed to make it feel as though they were interacting with each other—and with us, the audience.

My favorite part, though, was the suit aspect. Throughout the performance, they removed aspects of the suit one by one—the jacket, the hat, even the pants—all except for one standalone dancer at the very edge.

The costumes ended up being a standout part of the entire night; the third piece, for instance, was completely different, but still striking in part because of its visual aspect. The dancers were performing against a backdrop of projected flowers, and they all wore vibrant, colorful outfits. This gave me the semi-subconscious impression that maybe the dancers themselves were meant to represent flowers, or something like flowers. This interpretation was reinforced toward the end, when three of the dancers stood under a stream of water that looked like an actual spring from the natural world, transplanted onto the stage.

The final piece was definitely more somber than the rest, with shaded, semi-uniform costumes and dim, melancholic lighting. However, it was still entrancing to watch, in part due to the constantly shifting nature of the choreography and the “scene” unfolding on the stage. It was definitely a powerful closing piece for the night.

Dancing Globally was a welcome representation of the work being done in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, in part because of its sheer variety and in part because of the balance it was able to strike between engaging and thought-provoking. Overall, the night was definitely a success, and I look forward to attending more dance performances in the future.

REVIEW: Flux by Cadence Dance Company

Cadence Dance Company performs “Green Light”

“Continuous change or movement.”

That’s the definition of the word flux. But it’s also a summary of Flux, Cadence Dance Company’s winter show.

With a collection of contemporary pieces set to a soundtrack of indie music, Cadence, a self-choreographed dance company, showcased more than just movement. They told stories with every piece, stories that changed and evolved as the dances developed.

Especially in their large-group numbers — which I preferred to the small-group ones — Cadence showed a willingness to take risks with their choreography. The opening number, “8 (Circle)” utilized unique formations and lifts to great effect.

The small-group numbers didn’t have enough dancers to use those formations, so several of them had more standard contemporary moves. That didn’t mean it wasn’t innovative, though. My favorite of the small groups was “All Night,” which featured stools as props.

Cadence was strong technically, especially when it came to their turns.  There you could see the amount of rehearsal they put in; their turns were well synchronized even in complicated turn sequences. But at the same time, they didn’t overdo it on the turns.

However, my favorite technical aspect of Cadence’s dances were the lifts. Many numbers — especially the large-group ones — incorporated impressive lifts that at once showed grace and strength.

I was especially impressed with the finale, “Landfill.” The choreography was unique and affecting. The lifts and turns looked good. And though it was a full-company number, the end featured partner work. The partner choreography added to the meaning of the dance’s narrative about a toxic relationship. The two partners’ chemistry was such that it made you feel something. The number packed a punch and was the perfect ending to the show.

Cadence’s penultimate piece was called “Vor Í Vaglaskógi.” It was a senior number, a concept I haven’t seen from any other student groups. I liked the concept of giving the seniors one last number together, and that added more meaning to the movement.

That said, some of Cadence’s other numbers were somewhat forgettable. They weren’t bad by any means, but there was somewhat of a gap between the best numbers of the show and the others. I may have made the show a little shorter — putting more emphasis on the strongest numbers without really taking anything away.

The guest numbers — from hip-hop crews FunKtion and Encore, a cappella ensemble The Friars and tap dance group RhythM Tap — complemented Cadence nicely without overshadowing the main show.

All in all, Flux was an impressive concert that brought to the table things I haven’t seen from any other student dance group.  Their passion for what they did shined through and created something unique and bigger than themselves.