REVIEW: Eric Schroeder, euphonium

So as it turns out, I was the only one in the audience who was not a close friend or family of Eric. Luckily I only caught a few confused glances from his family, and his speech at the end thanking everyone for coming reduced the awkwardness. He offered the whole crowd a fabulous post-performance spread of cheeses and cookies, and he had done such a good job making me, the sole stranger, feel welcome that I felt comfortable taking a frosted eighth note on my way out.

This boy is certainly great at composing an atmosphere. Maybe he wasn’t the one who decided his performance location, but by the way he worked with the space it seemed he had. The whole room was gilded as if painted with liquid gold: the shine of the brass winking at me from the stage, the microphones ablaze in the light, the glowing reflection of the spotlights onto the walls was like being put inside a gleaming set of Saturn’s rings. The instrument’s mouth looked like a bowl full of tiny suns; the whole time I felt sleepily otherworldly.

Besides the environment though, his playing was enchanting. A novice to this type of brass, I was struck by how much the euphonium is like a human voice singing along the higher pitches. Many of the ending notes to sections of music are low, guttural, the periods between dainty and soulful. Schroeder worked this contrast well, keeping the tone rich and avoiding abrasion all too easy to involve when such sharp contrasts are at play. That being said, I would recommend he practice some breathing exercises to mitigate the audible jaggedness that sometimes crept into his performance.

Though Schroeder is still very young, he has the beginnings of worldliness about him already. He exhibits a confidence far beyond his few decades on the planet, a key quality necessary for any performer. His finger work is amazingly precise, and he shows great promise in his control of softness; the notes held out are clear and true (for a little proof, click this link: IMG_0029).

Eric is close to graduating, but like us all he will continue to learn for years to come. Whether his direction is to perform or teach (or both), he will have success, even if (as he says) the euphonium is a lot less employable than piano. He’ll learn more about stage presence, which is the only thing he really lacked. It isn’t necessary to remain stationary, even when playing a tremendous instrument; he could have kept the beat with a little dance, or done some interpretive work when there was a piano solo. It is understandable when one is so focused in performance–especially in your senior recital–that showmanship falls by the wayside. However, as a musician, Schroeder surely knows that performance is a dynamic conglomeration that demands precision in both each musical note and fostering an artist-audience relationship. Schroeder must find his style to establish himself as an individual in an overflowing industry.

Congrats grad!

 

REVIEW: A New Brain

A New Brain follows the life of Gordon Michael Schwinn, a composer who must write songs about green frogs, spring, and “yes.” SMTD delivered a wonderful performance of this one-act musical, despite some problems with the original book itself.

I walked out of the Arthur Miller Theatre amused, but also slightly confused by some of the character relations and the plot. The relationship between Gordon and his partner Roger seems tense from the beginning, and it seems to be because Roger is obsessed with sailing in the open waters and Gordon struggles to write the songs that are stuck in his head and can’t get out. Their tenuous relationship throughout the course of the musical just seemed off to me, though Luke Bove and Jack Mastrianni performed their roles wonderfully.

The minister seemed unnecessary to the whole thing, while the presence of the homeless lady also confused me a bit, since her appearances and interactions with the rest of the characters didn’t seem to add much to the rest of the musical. She consoles Roger, sells Gordon’s books, and sings a poignant song asking for change—both for physical money and social change. While that message rang true, it seemed rather out of place for this musical. However, once again, Daelynn Jorifand her powerful voice stirred lots of emotions, especially during her solo number “Change.”

Finally, moments of the plot confused me a little as well, especially as Gordon started to hallucinate or when he first fell into a coma and the progression of that. Madeline Eaton, who plays Gordon’s mom, also had a shining moment in her song, “The Music Still Plays on,” though it seemed to suggest that Gordon had actually died while he was in the coma.

Nonetheless, the stage props and transitions, as well as the creative use of the ensemble, pushed these questions to the back of my mind. Given the few problems I had with the characters and plot, the SMTD cast was exceptional, selling the whimsical humor that underlies the nature of this play. Owen Claire Smith as the Thin Nurse and James Young as the Nice Nurse contrasted each other perfectly with their sassy attitudes. Especially during numbers such as “Gordon’s Law of Genetics,” the over-the-top choreography and break from characters added much entertainment to a somber and serious topic for a musical. The idea of Gordon dying before he could get all the songs he wanted to write out into the world is a stark reality for many individuals who have so much potential, and yet life (and death) happens. Thankfully, A New Brain approaches this prospect with lots of light and energy, inspiring us to make the most out of the time we get and giving us all hope that it will work out in the end.

PREVIEW: A New Brain

As the semester wraps up, stop by the Arthur Miller Theatre tomorrow for the last performance of  A New Brain, SMTD’s production of the 1998 musical about a composer during a medical emergency. After collapsing into his lunch, composer Gordon wakes up in the hospital to find himself surrounded by friends, family, and a large green frog from the children’s show he is meant to be writing for. For just $13 with a student ID, don’t miss the matinee tomorrow at 2:00 PM.

REVIEW: Water by the Spoonful

SMTD’s production of Water by the Spoonful does not deal with light subjects. The play follows a family coping with death, a chatroom for recovering drug addicts, and the way these two groups intersect. Another key point is how Elliot, the son of the deceased Ginny, copes with PTSD resulting from his time spent in Iraq. Though the play finds itself confronting all these difficult situations, it leaves audiences with hope and a heightened sense of one’s priorities.

 

This was my first time at the Arthur Miller Theater. I found its layout really interesting, especially in the context of Water by the Spoonful. The theater is square with the stage at the center. Only a few rows of seats radiate from each of the three exposed sides, both on the ground level and balcony. The performance feels so immediate and three-dimensional when viewed in this way; I could see the smallest changes in an actor’s face, feel the movement of a fight scene, and watch the water fall as it is poured on the stage by the spoonful. When a sizable portion of the dialogue takes place in a chatroom, four different locations need to be created. By angling certain rooms towards different sections of the audience, the staging created this dual sense of dislocation and togetherness in a really interesting and effective way. The section of the stage farther back by the wings was also used in conjunction with an elevated balcony and the central space to explore some of the collage-like overlapping sections of the work. As characters inhabit all three spaces with various lines and music weaving in and out of the scene, the different spatial contexts allowed a type of visual overlapping to coincide with the aural and theatrical pastiches going on.

 

The use of space was intriguing in this work, but what is space if not filled with characters and lines and interaction? The performances in Water by the Spoonful gave life to a plethora of diverse and complex characters. Notable performances include Alyxandra Ciale Charfauros and Vincent Ford as Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders, respectively, as the two bring a realness to their characters that becomes amplified in their back-and-forth conversations. Kyle Prue’s performance as Fountainhead, a man with an addiction who can’t quite face his reality, was also one that I found highly immersive.

 

Ultimately, I found Water by the Spoonful to be a great performance. The material was used in really thoughtful ways in terms of both direction and performance, and I look forward to trekking to North Campus again to see more work in the Arthur Miller theater.

REVIEW: Water by the Spoonful

SMTD’s production of Water by the Spoonful soared beyond all expectations; it went beyond a simple examination of addiction, familial dysfunction, and the human burdens accompanying both, and instead quivered in an unwavering state of compassion, warming my heart in counterbalance. Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play proved to be as patiently restorative as the the metaphor in which its name is based upon – the title refers to a method of hydrating sick children, in which the caretaker must sustain the child with spoonful-sized dosages of water, spaced five minutes apart. If improperly executed, the results can be devastating; Hudes’ work carries an undercurrent of this metaphor throughout. The characters in the plot, be they recovering addicts, mourners, or both, must likewise learn to sustain their individual burdens within life’s fragile constraints, while recognizing the healing properties of interpersonal support and forgiveness.

I perceived the play to be pretty nonlinear; it was only after Yazmin’s monologue about the necessity of ‘dissonance’ that the scenes and characters gradually unveiled themselves to be far more interconnected than their initial, disparate origins. Indeed, the concept of dissonance through Yazmin’s terms clarified my understanding of the play; on the surface, the eccentric crack-addicts interacting within the support chatroom, Ginny’s death, and her two very different mourning relatives seemed dissonant, like chess pieces moving in no relation to one another. Yet it was about halfway through that I conceived of more than just a community death connecting each character’s stories. Rather, the addicts and the Ortiz family are practically interwoven, not only in narrative but also resolved in the sense of universal yearning, grief, and overall, a collective search for harmony.

“Dissonance is still a gateway to resolution.” – Quiara Alegría Hudes, Water by the Spoonful

Beyond the heartwarming characters and SMTD’s moving portrayals of them, I particularly enjoyed the production’s sound and set designs and the little details included in such that effectively highlighted the pure human emotionality running through the piece. Though Hudes writes Water by the Spoonful with dissonance and John Coltrane’s uninhibited jazz music in mind, the sound designers working on this production incorporated these musical concepts especially well in the play’s most emotionally charged moments – like Odessa’s overdose and the abrupt endings of multiple chatroom arguments. In addition, the set designers managed to transform the space from scene-to-scene into vastly different simulated environments, through multiple wheeled components, which I thought was consistently convincing and effective. After all, how does one spatially represent the cyberspace and how people would interact within a “chatroom”?

SMTD’s Water by the Spoonful will be on show at the Arthur Miller Theatre until November 17; I highly recommend going if you have the chance!

REVIEW: La Bohème

The School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s production of the opera La Bohème was certainly a treat. Featuring the University Opera Theatre and the University Symphony Orchestra, it was a chance to go to the opera without leaving campus!

Though La Bohème was first performed in 1896 (the music is by composer Giacomo Puccini, and the libretto, or words, is by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica), this performance was set in the post-war era. This allowed for more modern costuming and set design, and in my opinion, it also made the entire storyline seem more relatable, as the characters were not in the distant past. The addition of English captions over the stage was also a welcome addition, since the entire opera is in Italian (which, unfortunately, I am not fluent in).

If you know the musical Rent, the plot of La Bohème will be familiar, as the musical is a modern adaptation of the opera. However, though the storyline contains themes of youth, romance, poverty, and realities of the “Bohemian” existence, the plot seemed rather underdeveloped to me. In particular, the ending seemed abrupt, and I would have liked more closure (though perhaps this serves to further the opera’s themes).

That said, the simplicity of the plot allows the opera’s music to shine through. The University Symphony Orchestra performed the score spectacularly, and the leads and the chorus were also wonderful. I enjoyed the fact that the design of the Power Center allows the orchestra to be largely visible, rather than hidden under the stage. Sometimes, however, this was to my detriment, as I was watching the orchestra and listening to the music rather than watching the on-stage action and reading the captions!

In the area of set design, the opera production was also stunning. There was a short intermission between each of the opera’s four acts to allow time for elaborate set changes, and they were certainly worth the wait. I can only imagine the time and effort that goes into designing and constructing the sets. My personal favorite was the set for Act II, which took place in Paris’s Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve. Featuring a nearly full-scale two-story building façade, streetlamps, and Christmas wreaths and garlands, it was a work of art. On a separate note, this scene also featured members of the University of Michigan Marching Band, as well as the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale! I also enjoyed the set for Act III, which featured falling snow and a moving train.

The School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s production of La Bohème was an excellent opportunity to see a high-quality performance right here in Ann Arbor, and I am glad that I had the chance to attend!