REVIEW: Cabaret

Life is a cabaret. And MUSKET delivered a show set in Nazi Germany that made stark connections to America today. It was hard to walk away from the Power Center without realizing the many parallels that are still present, almost a century later, and it was certainly unsettling, which means these artists succeeded in delivering their message through an exceptional performance.

Wilson Plonk was a wonderful Emcee, setting the stage with the Kit Kat Klub girls and boys with many dance moves. The Emcee and Sally Bowles provided insightful commentaries as they performed at the club, the most striking number for me being “Money.” The Emcee started out as purely entertaining, being humorously risqué and joyously but as he became more distressed and terrified throughout the show, that unsettling fear about the actions underlying the show became more stark and drastic. When the Emcee held up the phonograph that played the recording of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, with a solemnly grim and pained look on his face, my stomach dropped, but that was only the beginning. As Fräulein Kost and Ernst Ludwig sang the reprise with a haunting pride, Clifford Bradshaw’s horrified face explained it all. Later, the scene with the Gorilla in “If You Could See Her” was shocking and impactful in how ridiculous it appears and how implicit we all are in its perceived ridiculousness.

Caroline Glazier delivered stunning performances as Sally Bowles, not just in the Kit Kat Klub with the rest of her girls, but particularly “Maybe This Time” and the iconic “Cabaret,” where she was shaking with anguish as she belted out these words. Samantha Buyers and Aaron Robinson portrayed Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz very realistically, and their duets, “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married” were very moving. I think their performances were the most exceptional and compelling, since these college students brought the pains of old age and young hopes very much alive.

The director Isabel K. Olson made an interesting choice with the ending, having the characters step forward and say the line that embodies their way of approaching and handling and going through life. In the program, she said it beautifully: “are we the audience to injustice or active participants working against it?” As Sally Bowles shrugs aside politics and chooses to live in ignorant bliss, Herr Schultz desperately claims that everything will be okay because he is a German and Fräulein Schneider laments that she has no other choice. As the Emcee reveals his concentration camp outfit, strobe lights go off and all the actors jolt in a horrifying final moment before the ghost light is brought onstage and the actors take a single bow, leaving the light, and its impact, behind.

PREVIEW: Cabaret

Cabaret is the 1966 musical that focuses on the Kit Kat Klub in 1931 Berlin. Young American writer Cliff Bradshaw and English cabaret performer Sally Bowles navigate a relationship during this tumultuous time. Meanwhile, German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider and her elderly suitor Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor, come to grips with their doomed romance.

Even though it takes place during the rise of the Nazi Party, this musical is timeless, so come out in 2018 and watch MUSKET put on a performance that remains powerful today. Tickets are on sale at MUTO (in the Michigan League Underground) or can be purchased online. Shows are November 16 and 17 at 8pm and November 18 at 2pm at the Power Center.

REVIEW: In the Heights

It’s been some time since I’ve studied art history, but I remember one of the first things I learned about looking at a composition is the way the eye is directed to move around the piece of art. During nearly every musical number of In the Heights, I found my eyes moving around it in a way that felt deliberate – and I was unstoppably stunned the entire time.

From its very first scene with Graffiti Pete dancing, spray-paint can in hand and somehow defying all sorts of gravity, I don’t think my jaw left the floor. It was an excellent primer for the choreography of the rest of the show. During intermission, I flipped through the program and was equally stunned to learn that this show had two debuting choreographers in its cohort. Needless to say, those involved in the show radiated their talent into one of the best MUSKET shows that I’ve seen. The main cast and ensemble had near-perfect unison in their group movements while keeping their voices strong and smooth. A hallmark of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musicals, I enjoyed the incorporation of rap and hip hop and loved that the actors also seemed to enjoy it.

The cast, primarily actors of color, seemed made for the roles — especially Usnavi. While this was my first introduction to the musical itself, I felt that his casting could not have been more perfect as the bodega owner close-knit with those around him. Additionally, his character was such a centrally driving factor of the show’s main themes: community and the familial support that comes of it, and sense of identity in terms of the idea of “home” as an immigrant. The show also explored themes of being a first-generation college student, gentrification, cultural identity, and past versus future with the turbulent present that lies in between.

Cast and director Bruna d’Avila answering audience questions following the Saturday performance.

Following the show — which made me laugh, cry, and be completely astounded — I stuck around for the talkback with the cast and director Bruna d’Avila. As a senior and having seen 6/8 of the MUSKET shows put on during my undergrad career, I hadn’t experienced an addition like this and was excited to hear their insights. Several other impressed viewers (from high schoolers in a theatre group to adults who have emigrated from Latin American countries) sat around me and praised the crew for doing incredible work to highlight a story to which they expressed their personal relations to and respective admiration for the show. Stories such as these are beyond what I personally have experienced, though I felt grateful that a show such as this one exists for those whose stories it mirrors as well as a method for others to better understand these complicated notions of home and new life in America.

When asked about her favorite musical number of In the Heights, d’Avila excitedly spoke about “Carnaval del Barrio” and the importance of waving your flag proudly. This was a number with which I was also enamored both because of the cast displaying flags of specific Latin American countries and because it was one of those numbers full of complexity. Several lines of verse from its main characters worked into and beside one another as the song concluded, and I found my attention moving from one to the next in a circular pattern before realizing just how inimitable this scene was as a climactic moment.

The ending scene of musical number “Carnaval del Barrio”

There was not one part of this show that I disliked — every cast member appeared devoted to their roles and it showed. Each named character had their own arcs, even the piragua vendor/comic relief, Piragüero. Similar to the works of authorial genius Victor Hugo, the characters were interconnected with one another in a way that made the show feel well-rounded, as opposed to restricting certain characters to certain storylines. Everybody knew each other, which made the sense of community and family (which are not mutually exclusive) especially strong.

MUSKET has kept my attention all four years that I have been here, and I have made it a point to see as many of their shows as possible. Each of those shows have left me feeling impressed and grateful that such a talented group of people can become a familial community over a short span of time for a weekend of performance that blows us all away. If you also love musical theatre and are interested in getting involved with the team, the MUSKET family is always welcoming of new members.

REVIEW: In The Heights

America is the land of opportunity. Many people from many countries immigrated to the United States in search of a better life, of a better future for their kids. And as this new generation grows up in the land they call home, they must grapple with what home truly means.

MUSKET’s performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s baby, the predecessor to Hamilton, embraced this culture that seems lost in the face of white America. With an extremely diverse, and truly phenomenal, cast, you could see in everyone’s eyes that they were proud and thankful for their heritage as they sang and danced their hearts out onstage at this sold out show. With flags proudly waved and memories preciously cherished, this production of In The Heights was filled with overwhelming talent and pride.

It touches on the sacrifices that parents make for the sake of the children they love and wish to provide for. The selfless hardships they endured are appreciated, not lost, on the continuing road of struggles as we all try to reach a higher pinnacle of greatness and hope. Kevin’s desire to escape the life of farming led him to leave his father’s footsteps and to pave the perfect path for Nina that he always envisioned, despite the difficulties that proves to be.

It touches on the struggles of Latinx minorities to succeed as first-generation college students. The pressure for Nina to make it out and make something of herself, and the reality of how difficult that is with financial burdens, is something that universities must take into account as they provide more assistance for more opportunities for better education.

It touches on the importance of family and community. Abuela Claudia’s presence and legacy roots Usnavi in Washington Heights and the Dominican Republic simultaneously. Benny may not be Latino, but he is among family in the Heights as well.

It touches on the dreams of leaving only to be pulled back by the weight of home.

It touches on a Latino community with no power — singing repeatedly “We are powerless” in the midst of a blackout — still powering through such adversity.

MUSKET brings all these aspects of life to the surface through powerful vocals and classic Miranda lyrics and savvy Salsa moves that exposed these struggles and difficulties — and the strength and perseverance of immigrant families.

I left the Power Center speechless, pretending I didn’t just cry after basically every number. I witnessed some of the best choreography I’ve ever seen and heard some of the best music I’ve ever laid ears on. The band’s power just enhanced the vocals and power displayed onstage, providing an amazing backdrop that set the tone for every note sung and fit with every move made. There was excitement in the air and celebratory joy and stunning sadness. It was real.

This musical forced me into a position of intense self-reflection. It made me appreciate my parents — immigrants from Taiwan — even more, and it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of my own story and my privilege and the life I’m going to make for myself here at Michigan.

However, it also brought my attention to the greater world around me, and the journey of everyone here. The diversity represented onstage was truly groundbreaking, and having such an inclusive show at the University of Michigan right now is so important. The chemistry among the cast is only natural as they share a common piece of history and understanding. The uniting factor for everyone on the cast, crew, and band was a pride in the past and a vision for the future, and that power and passion made this performance resonate beyond the stage and into the real world.

Tl; dr: The vocals: WOW. The choreography: WOOWWWW. The passion: WOWOWOW. And the message? Just *wow*.

 

PREVIEW: In The Heights

This 2008 Broadway classic has found its way to University of Michigan’s campus! Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In The Heights follows the lives of a Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City over the course of three days. MUSKET is bringing UM student talent to this masterpiece this weekend!

Catch this production at the Power Center on March 16 and 17 at 8pm and March 19 at 2pm. Tickets ($7 for students and $13 for adults) can be purchased at https://www.ummusket.org/ or at MUTO.

REVIEW: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

There was blood indeed, and it was unmistakably about Andrew Jackson.

In this musical, Jackson was really developed as a character, showing just how nuanced he was as a president and as a person. Through glimpses of his personal history, we see how his past would shape his beliefs and his behaviors. The songs and scenes summarized his life and his decisions in a way that no documentary or textbook could ever do. Full of rock and unsuspected one-liners, it definitely kept the audience engaged, and the constant laughter, heavy hushed silences, and standing ovation at the end proved that.

One of my favorite songs was “Ten Little Indians.” The female soloist and ensemble were fantastically chilling, to say the least, and its grim reality resonated deeply and intensely. “The Corrupt Bargain” was also a personal favorite.  As a nice contrast to “Ten Little Indians”, this silly, upbeat number was the epitome of satire, exaggerating how politicians were mere puppets that could not be taken seriously. I thought this was brilliantly executed and while that song could have ran on the verge of ridiculous and cringe-worthy, the directorial choice in choreography made this an entertaining little history lesson with a larger societal commentary behind it that still rings true in modern politics.

The talented cast was absolutely amazing. The pacing was perfect, their chemistry with each other made me forget they were acting, and their personas and voices filled the room. Jake Smith brought the power into the entire Power Center as Andrew Jackson. The grief, the rage, the anguish, the passion for America were all so evident in his energetic performance as our great yet pained president. Garrett Forrestal provided comedic relief from this harrowing journey through history as the Storyteller who refuses to be silenced. As he shrewdly said in his resurrection at the end, “You can’t shoot history in the neck.” Maddison Rotner’s rendition of “The Great Compromise” beautifully captured the suffering of Rachel Jackson. Finally, the penultimate number, “Second Nature”, performed by Josh Strobl (Black Fox) was a stunning summary of what Jackson’s legacy would be, and Strobl’s soulful singing brought as much justice to the sorrows of the past as possible.

I was a huge fan of the rock and roll energy, even though it was nicely balanced throughout by the sensitive emotional scenes. The edgy attitude modernized this otherwise archaic story. I also really liked the backdrop and the vibe it set for the stage, as well as all the other props, including fabrics dictating all the different chapters of his life and the table that continued to stand despite losing a leg to Smith’s fiercely-flaring temper. The music was everything American rock, and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall between the four-member band and the cast was a nice change of pace as well. Particularly commendable was Erez Levin’s ability to rock out on the guitar while also channeling his inner fool as the laughable Martin Van Buren. Some directorial choices and parts of the musical were questionable, but overall, this production was really nicely performed and enjoyable to watch.

In the end, Andrew Jackson was a human being who wanted what he thought was best for the American people and the nation. His accomplishments remain extraordinary and controversial. Will there always be a debate around his presidency? Of course. And this musical does not serve as a commentary about what side you should take nor does it try to influence your opinion about him. Rather, it simply provides a look at the life of a complicated, flawed man with a great, tarnished legacy through comedy and rock and roll to help us understand American history and this complicated president on a whole new level.

If you didn’t attend on opening night, I highly recommend going to the Power Center to see MUSKET’s excellent production on November 18 at 8pm and November 19 at 2pm as they bring history alive onstage.