REVIEW: Sweet Charity

SMTD’s Sweet Charity is an ambitious attempt to restore a musical of its time. It features a lighthearted, happy-go-lucky dancer and the ups and downs of her romantic life– ultimately culminating in a promising but mildly problematic love interest. The show was entertaining and certainly worth the watch, and SMTD’s performers once again outdid themselves with their beautiful and engaging performances in singing, dancing, and acting; however, I think the musical itself was an overall unsatisfying with its meandering plot and sub-par music. It seemed too sympathetic of past conventions of gender roles and expectations to really land on meaningful social commentary, and missed the mark of nostalgic storytelling.

The show opens up with a song about Charity (later dubbed “Sweet Charity” by her problematic future lover) and her first lover, who turns out to be a sleazy “gentleman.” She dumps him while talking with her friends at the dance club, where she works as a dancer. Most of the first act is the wandering, slightly whimsical adventures of Charity’s fruitless romances and sex life, until– at last– she lands on a good, reliable, suit-wearing, morally trustworthy man: Oscar Lindquist. He seems to suffer extreme anxiety, but this doesn’t bother Charity. The main problem, however, is that Charity works as a taxi dancer in a dance hall– a job she knows Oscar wouldn’t approve of. She lies to him, letting him believe that she’s a banker.

Perhaps I’ve become too familiar with feminist ideas and have reflexive knee-jerk reactions when anything even slightly sketchy appears, but Oscar is the re-incarnated version of every single problematic nice guy. When Charity and him are on a date, he holds her hands on a ferris wheel, the stage ceiling glittering with stars, and says (paraphrasing), “Charity, Sweet Charity, you have what no other woman has these days– and that is pure virginity.” I had to stifle a gasp of outrage. The guy next to me cursed loudly under his breath.

Eventually, Charity confesses that she’s a dancer at the Fandango ballroom, through tears, refusing to look at Oscar’s eyes, and he proposes to her anyway, promising her that her profession and her past mean nothing to their future. Yet, a day before their wedding, Oscar leaves her last minute, admitting that every time he thinks about her, he can’t help but imagine all the men she’s slept with, all the men that have paid her to dance with them. By the end of the musical, however, he returns to her, declares his everlasting love, and they are, yet again, engaged.

The plot is certainly intriguing, and gives a glimpse into the degradation of sexually expressive women and the limited options of lower-class women in general. However, the first act of the musical, though entertaining, was largely insubstantial to the main ideas of the musical and its later characters. The musical also ends on a note that seemed totally inconclusive– I wanted to see if Charity’s marriage with Oscar actually ended up working, or if she suffered the consequences of living with man who had very specific and conservative qualifications for a “good” woman and wife– but we never end up seeing that.

There there many themes that would have been interesting to explore more that never saw out their full arc in the musical– we see threads of working women’s entrapment in the dance hall, Charity and her friends fighting for respect in the field they work in, and the line between romance, love, and desperation– but all these are just faint thematic shadows of an unactualized musical. Perhaps if the songs had been more robust and engaging, these themes could have been more actualized, but many of them were disengaging and meaningless. Though the performances were perhaps the strongest part of the musical, I can’t say it made the characters, plot, or songs any more likeable.

Despite my opinion of the musical, I will say that it was certainly worth the watch and entertaining enough to keep me invested in the story, and understanding it as a musical of its time makes a great deal more tolerable. The performers were riveting– I will never stop being wholly amazed at the sheer talent of SMTD students at Michigan. I can’t wait to see the next musical SMTD puts on next– but I sincerely hope it isn’t one about the romantic ups and downs of one particular dancer in the 60’s.

PREVIEW: University Symphony Orchestra & University Philharmonia Orchestra

When: Wednesday, November 12 at 8pm

Where: Hill Auditorium

Tickets: none (free)!

U-M School of Music’s two orchestras come together to perform a program that reflects on what it means to be American — from Native American, African American, and Bohemian visitor’s perspectives. The concert with musicians from University Symphony Orchestra (USO) & University Philharmonia Orchestra (UPO) features a movement from William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1930); Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s Tracing Mississippi, a concerto for flute (2001); and finally, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World” (1893). I’m sure many of you are familiar with the tune “goin’ home, goin’ home…” Did you know that this is one of the most famous solos for English horn in Dvořák’s “New World” symphony? From rarely performed works to many audiences’ favorite, this concert will surely be worth your attention. Also, this is one of the very rare chances to see School of Music, Theater, and Dance’s Dean Christopher Kendall conduct. Don’t miss out!

REVIEW: Jazz Department 25th Anniversary: Jazz Ensembles and Alumni Concert

Jazz Ensemble and Alumni Concert

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation department at the University of Michigan. To celebrate, a number of musical activities have been taking place all month,including panel discussions, visiting artists, masterclass, theme semester collaborations, faculty recitals, and performance showcases. Last week, the Jazz Ensemble and Alumni Concert performed in the Rackham Auditorium. Jazz ensemble is a required class for concentrators, divided into two sections: Jazz Lab Ensemble and Jazz Ensemble.

The first half of the performance showcased the “Lab.” They performed seven pieces; some original, some classic, some arranged by faculty, and some written by department alumni. Two of the songs featured vocals. The last piece performed before the intermission was my favorite. It takes a lot of breath to shine amidst the carries of thirty brass instruments!

Following the break, the Jazz Ensemble collected onstage and performed six arrangements. Two were written by faculty Andrew Bishop and Ellen Rowe (director of the department, who also conducted), and two were written by alumni. It just so happens that the latter were my favorite pieces of the evening.”Leaving Paris,” by David Luther (a very fine name for a jazz composer, don’t you think?) was the kind of music you’d want to hear on a rainy day. It was slow but varied; I felt the emotion in the rhythm very richly. “May Morning Dew,” by Tyler Duncan, was an adventurous and non-traditional piece. The notes drew from an ancient Irish folk song and included the recoded voice of a man singing the archaic tune. Tyler Duncan played the F Flute, which apparently he used when he auditioned for the school though it had never been done before. An experimental artist, you may recognize Tyler’s name from local Ann Arbor band My Dear Disco, which he helped create and toured with in the years following graduation.

The performance was an exciting exposition of student work, both past and present. The energetic music certainly celebrated this momentous anniversary that this year marks. I loved attending, but after the show had to quickly race back to the library to study for finals. Good luck everyone!

PREVIEW: Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni

It’s the classic story of that guy who gets around. Don Juan, Dom Juan, Johnny Depp, Don Giovanni, it’s always the same old thing. In Spain, in France, in Italy, and now at U of M, the story repeats itself one more time. This weekend, The School of Music, Theater, and Dance will perform the age old tale of Don Giovanni, a legendary lover’ who ‘makes one too many notches on his bedpost. The opera masterpiece is directed by Prof. Robert Swedberg and stars both graduate and undergraduate students from the department. With music by Mozart and lyrics by Lorenzo da Ponte, this piece is one of the most famous operas ever performed. The libretto will be sung in its original language- Italian- but fear not, surtitles will be projected above the stage to guide all you English speakers out there.

I am currently enrolled in a Romance Languages seminar devoted entirely to this elusive and seductive character, Don Juan. As part of the course, we will be attending the opera. We are also engaging with both the actors and the players behind the scenes. Prof. Swedberg visited our class last week to discuss the process of creating such an opera. He spoke of the liberties he took in adapting the story for a modern audience. For example, the plot takes plays in New Orleans instead of Italy, and in the end Don Juan is dragged to hell by…well I don’t want to ruin the surprise but there is a slightly alternate ending the the original tale. It sounds like it will be a dramatic and exciting performance, sure to please. I’ve never been to an opera at U of M so you can certainly count on seeing me there!

The show will be held at The Power Center on:

November 8 at 7:30 pm//November 9 and 10 at 8 pm//November 11 at 2 pm

For more information about the performance, including buying tickets, click here.

Enjoy the show!

REVIEW: Dancing Americas

On Thursday, February 3rd, 2011 I entered the Power Center at the University of Michigan to watch the University Dance Company perform in Dancing Americas.  The show showcased dances from across the Americas, from tango to jazz to New York City pop.  The purpose of Dancing Americas is to celebrate multiple disciplines in dance across time and space.  The cultural diversity within this program set each performance apart from the other.

While the program featured the work of four different choreographers, I will only focus on the first two pieces within the program: “MinEvent” and “Towards A Sudden Silence.”  The show opened with “MinEvent,” a piece by Merce Cunningham.  This piece was the most contemporary of the night.  The curtain rose to reveal a barebones set.  The backdrop, curtains on the wings and everything else was removed leaving a set that was reminiscent of a construction site.  The industrial feel of this performance was the first of many surprises.  I should note that Merce Cunningham was known for his innovation.  He believed that music and dance should be created independently of one another.  Thus, the dancers rehearsed in silence and were not exposed to the music prior to this performance.  This created a very interesting experience, as the music was nothing like traditional music.

The music was reminiscent of an introduction to music composition class I once took.  The class philosophy held that any combination of sound was music.  This philosophy seemed to define the music within this first piece, as there was no apparent tempo or melody.  The “music” included many unpleasant sounds: sawing wood, tin cans, feedback, drills, bells, chewing of food, change in a mixing bowl, whisks and a plethora of other non-traditional instruments.  While I can appreciate the creativity within the music, I felt that it became distracting at points.  I often found myself engulfed in the creation of this music, which pulled my attention away from the dance itself.

The dance started with two people on stage, a man and a woman.  Their moves were stiff and extremely rapid, but synchronized at times.  Their grey leotards revealed every curve of their body.  This was very interesting, as you could see every muscle working to create their art.  It was like watching a machine.  The dance continued with multiple groups of dancers running on and off the stage.  Because of the bare nature of the set we could see the dancers waiting in the wings, which was also a very interesting experience.  The dancers would often run on and off stage at full speed.  They would come on in groups of two or three, dancing to their own beat.  As more dancers began making their entrance the colors of their costumes began to change.  We began to see dancers in light blue and red costumes.  These bright colors were a relief and provided a stark contrast from the set and the costumes initial dancers.  There were not many times when the entire group of dancers was on stage and dancing in unison.  Throughout the majority of this performance the dancers all seemed to be doing their own dance in the same style.  As mentioned previously, the dancers were very mechanical and almost alien in their movement.  I distinctly remember a reoccurring move that involved an isolated violent shaking of the foot.  The dancer would walk up the stage and engage in this birdlike dance.  It reminded me somewhat of a mating dance from the wild.  The performance was extremely foreign to me, so much so that it is difficult for me to actually describe the choreography.

I must admit that this performance made me feel a bit uncomfortable.  It was an extremely visceral experience that pushed me past my comfort zone.  However, I appreciated it and felt that it was the highlight of the evening.  It was truly an indescribable performance.

Melissa Beck choreographed the second piece of the evening, “Towards A Sudden Silence.”  While I felt that “MinEvent” was more memorable, this was the most enjoyable piece throughout the program.  When the curtain rose the audience was presented with a more traditional dance experience.  The curtains were lowered in the wings and downstage and the set was very simple and featured a bench downstage center.  The bench was adorned with several female dancers wearing bright colored dresses, each a different shade.  The women were poised and proper with their hands in their laps and their backs straight up.  At the end of the bench stood a single male dancer, who seemed to be a headmaster of sorts.  When the choreography began, a female dancer at the end of the bench closest to the man attempted to stand up only to be brought back down by her peers.  The anguish in her face assisted the audience’s interpretation of the piece.  She wanted out.  Once she escaped she stood upstage right.  She then began running in place, but tripping with each step.  It looked as if she was trying to escape from something, but was unable to obtain that freedom.  Her running became more violent with every stride.  She began flailing in place, creating audible grunts.  Her attempt to escape became so violent that her headband flew off of her head onto the ground.  She stopped.  It was as if she had given up.  She picked up her headband, placed it on her head and straightened out her dress.  The remainder of the piece reflected this first scene.  The dancers attempting to break free, becoming more and more violent only to be corralled back in by their peers or the lone male.

I came to this performance with a feminist point of view, believing that our patriarchal society as some sort of control over minorities, including women and especially women within a sexual minority.  To me, this performance seemed to be a testament to this ideology.  The women performing within this piece carried with them a fire.  They were angry and wanted more than anything to break out of the roles in which our society has cast them.

The two performances, though extremely different, created an experience and elicited visceral emotional responses.  While I was unaware of the quality in dance throughout the majority of the show, I was able to connect to the performances on an emotional level.  Whether that was feeling uncomfortable and awkward or feeling a strong connected to the performance and its meaning.  For me, the emotional connection to these performances was the most impressive aspect of this program.

REVIEW: “Into the Woods”

One of the greatest perks about being a UofM student is having exquisite art right at our fingertips. The school of Music, Theatre and Dance is home to one of the top rated musical theatre departments in the country. This department rarely disappoints and “Into the Woods” was no exception. The University Production of “Into the Woods,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, delivered nothing less than what one would expect from this incredible department. The sold out show delighted its audience at the Lydia Mendelssohn theatre last Thursday evening.

The musical flawlessly intertwines the storylines from several of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales as it takes the audience to a place they’ve never seen. Namely, the darker more tragic endings that are not so “happy” after all. The main plot focuses on a baker and his wife and their quest to have a child all while interacting with characters from the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella among others. Sitting in the audience, it was difficult not to lose all concepts of time and space as the cast and crew took you on a mystifying journey through these stories.

As for the performers themselves, Andy Jones and Sam Lips stole the show with their hilarious performances as Cinderella and Rapunzel’s Princes. While skipping across the stage, these two performers nailed the roles impeccably. Their rendition of “Agony” was simply side splitting as the song enlightened the audience to their narcissistic personalities. The two characters provided the majority of the comic relief throughout the show, as they were often unaware of anything that was happening around them.

Additionally, you could not help but fall in love with Olivia Hernandez as she took on the role of Cinderella. She created a character that was relatable and loveable, all while having a powerhouse voice. You could not help but root for her character as she lived amongst an evil stepmother and sisters and was married to a lackluster prince who would rather role around in the “thicket” with another woman than be faithful to her. I must say that Olivia’s interpretation of Cinderella was nearly spot on. Her performance was by far my favorite out of this cast.

The overall production of the show was incredibly high as well. With wonderful costuming, set and lighting design, the show matched that of a professional theatre. As mentioned before, University Productions rarely disappoint and this was but another example of the incredible talent here at the University of Michigan. The show has since wrapped, be I would advise you to be on the lookout for upcoming University Productions!