REVIEW: Sweeney Todd

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street took the stage of the Power Center, and everything about it was absolutely thrilling and spectacular in the grandest sense. Comparable to a Broadway production, SMTD has outdone themselves again.

Jamie Colburn was an impeccable Sweeney Todd, capturing his rage and thirst for vengeance with every scowl and word. Allie Re’s performance of Mrs. Lovett exceeds words, as she embodied her quirky character just perfectly. Her facial expressions were extraordinary, showing the complexities and intricacies within her. The classic number “A Little Priest” ended the first act with a humorous, witty delight as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd come up with their genius and delicious plan. Together, Re and Colburn stole the show.

The supporting cast and ensemble were splendid as well. Blake Roman as Anthony in “Johanna” and Emma Ashford as Johanna in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” brought powerful vocals to the stage, matching each other beautifully later in “Kiss Me.” Aaron Robinson pulled off Pirelli’s difficult part with ease, and Spencer LaRue played the precious, innocent Tobias, performing one of my favorite numbers, “Not While I’m Around,” beautifully. The Beggar Woman, played by Cydney Clark, fully captured the craze and hysteria of the streets of London. Sondheim’s score is creativity at its peak, but the entire cast and pit nailed this challenging musical.

Aside from the phenomenal acting and singing, everything about this production was stellar. The props were amusing and delightful, from Mrs. Lovett’s delectable meat pies to Todd’s barber chair that disposes of his victims in a humorous fashion. The choreography of this production was particularly stunning. You normally don’t think about Sweeney Todd as a choreography-heavy musical, but the ensemble quickly changed that notion as they came out during the opening “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and established the ominous nature of this musical with an intensely choreographed number. In “By the Sea,” the pairs of dancers in their outfits and umbrellas evoked Mrs. Lovett’s dream in a very visually pleasing way.

Probably what was most notable about the performance I saw on Sunday was the fact that at the beginning of the second act, Colburn got his hand caught in the barber chair and his pinky fingernail got ripped off. However, like a true actor, he kept singing in that moment, went offstage to wrap it and apply makeup, and then he continued the rest of the show like a champ. Colburn took this bloody and gruesome musical to new levels with his personal experience, and that is certainly to be applauded.

Sweeney Todd was spectacular on every single level, from the lighting to the musical to the costumes to the choreography to the props to the singing to the acting. This was a wonderful performance to finish the year off with, since everything was perfectly executed.

REVIEW: FLINT

It’s not just about the water. It’s about the food, it’s about the health, it’s about the children, it’s about the disabled, it’s about the racism. It’s about human lives.

Five years later, the Flint Water Crisis is still very much ongoing. However, in reality, the Flint crisis has been ongoing long before the news media caught wind of the lead pipes. In José Casas’s newest play FLINT, he chronicles the tales of anger, fear, and betrayal that the people of Flint have endured, and continue to endure. With poignant and powerful vignettes of all types of people who have a connection to Flint, this play honors the community that’s been holding onto their strength and fighting against the system, even when the system is stacked against them.

The play starts with the story of the Father and ends with the Mother, the love of parents and the sense of community permeating every corner of the city. They feel the brunt of the Water Crisis as they watch their children drink contaminated water and watch them leave the city, where the Auntie cares for her nieces who, at such a young age, have developed an alarming distrust of the water and of life. There’s the stories of University of Michigan students in Ann Arbor who come from Flint, reflecting on the reasons why they left and how they felt when they did, and how the city never really leaves them. There’s the old Man and Woman who find love, despite the stigma associated with interracial marriages. There’s the Prom King, keeping the legacy of his high school alive while appreciating the moments of everyday joy that the media glances over while glorifying the crisis. There’s the Catholic who organizes unified relief efforts with people of all skin color, genders, and religions, only to be turned away. There’s the Boxer who fights, both physically and mentally, in his community.

There’s the optimistic Photographer, la aspiring Poeta, and the dreamer Actress, who find solace and hope in their art forms. There’s the Cashier, the Demolition Worker, the Autoworker, the Barber, and the Delivery Guy, who reflect on what makes a place a place, who see the different sides of failure, who wonder what can be made of destruction. There’s the Professor, the Commissioner, the Attorney, the Nurse, the Pediatrician, and the Sociologist, who understand how systematic and intentional the racism is, who see how the government systems in place work to oppress the ones who are already oppressed.

Flint is the home of children, parents, and old couples. It’s the home of the Black and Latinx and Deaf communities. But the government has turned that home into a place of fear and distrust. Governor Snyder failed his constituents. So did President Obama. General Motors never actually considered the city and its workers, while Nestle exploited the city to turn a profit on clean water. There are people and corporations and structures to blame, but the ones answering for these problems and shouldering the weight of it all is the community.

However, Flint and its people is not the water crisis. They are not helpless and they are not weak. They are not defined by this crisis because there is more to this place than the selfish act of the government and corporations. FLINT is the powerful compilation of the tales that have not been told, and Casas and the SMTD cast did a phenomenal job telling these real stories and giving them all a voice. As the ensemble switched between different characters, they weaved together these seemingly-separate narratives into one empowering story about one powerful community. The arch made from empty plastic water bottles was a stunning visual representation, along with the rusted lead pipes that hung from the ceiling and the graphics in the background that played clips of the Flint River, rippling waters, and much more. From the interviewing process all the way to the production, the resilient community has been at the heart of this play, not to exploit or glorify it, but to honor it and to make sure change happens.

Water is a human right. There is nothing more essential to our health and growth. The story of Flint is not an isolated one, as many cities and communities around the world are fighting for clean water, something we — the privileged — often take for granted, and as a result, often forget. Now, it is our job to never forget and always keep fighting for what is right so that our neighbors don’t have to fight alone.

PREVIEW: Flint

Many people remember the Flint Water Crisis that occurred now 5 years ago, but it is simply that — a distant memory of the extensive news coverage that has slowly faded from our collective minds. However, though there are no more national news reports about it, the issue has not been resolved, as Flint residents have battled for clean water and answers for five years and counting.

José Casas, playwright and SMTD faculty member, has transformed this tragic event into a powerful play that documents the effects, aftermath, and current state of this once-avoidable crisis. Based on true stories of Flint residents collected personally by Casas, “Flint” gives power and strength to the city and combines the monologues of pain and reality into this educational, documentary play that will hit close to home and open people’s minds and eyes to what our neighbors have dealt with and continue to deal with.

SMTD’s play “Flint” premiers tonight and runs for eight nights. Taking place on the blackbox stage in the Arthur Miller Theatre, general admission is $30 or $12 for students. The showtimes are as follows:

April 4 and 11 at 7:30 PM

April 5, 6, and 8 at 8 PM

April 7 and 14 at 2 PM

REVIEW: The Exonerated

The American criminal justice system is not perfect. Far from it. In fact, you can even say that the American criminal justice system is not just. The Exonerated tells the story of six wrongfully convicted people on death row using first-hand accounts, as well as court transcripts, letters, and interviews.

We meet Kerry Max Cook, Gary Gauger, Robert Earl Hayes, Sunny Jacobs, David Keaton, and Delbert Tibbs. They start by telling us about their lives, about how things were before their lives changed forever. They take turns sitting in the spotlight and introducing themselves and the nature of the crimes they were accused of, with occasional and brief flashbacks acted out. They narrate what led up to it, about how they weren’t even close to the scene of the crime, yet they were accused and arrested and berated by police officers. They were all convenient victims as suspects for these crimes, tricked into confessing and easily disposable.

Their harrowing experiences in prison, waiting for death row, was painful to hear. Listening to Cook’s account about how his imprisonment affected his older brother particularly stung, reminding us that these people, who aren’t even criminals, are still people, with families and feelings and a life outside of the prison walls even if we forget that. Sunny Jacobs’s gentle and innocent personality especially reminds us of their humanity, something that the justice system robbed them of but they managed to keep, even after the injustices they suffered. Eventually, they tell us how they were exonerated, but only after they paid the price with many years lost and many losses suffered.

Andrew Cekala’s portrayal as Kerry, the fast-talking Texan, was very amicable and easygoing, just as Maddie Eaton gave Sunny a bright and sunny personality. Similarly, Jacob Smith as Gary, Chris Washington as David, and Lee Alexander as Robert all made their characters warm and distinct. Delbert Tibbs, portrayed by Mason Reeves, acted as a powerful narrator and common thread among all the stories, listening to Sunny’s account of her strength at the very end. The entire cast delivered a moving performance through all the nuances of their characters and their situations.

All the characters remained onstage the entire play, sitting in their chairs on the side while listening intensely to the person in the spotlight whose story is being told. The simplicity of the set, with nothing more than a couple boxes and plenty of chairs, let us focus on the stories they were telling. The movement was also simple, the characters moving their chairs and shifting positions throughout the play, sometimes accompanied by the cast’s quiet yet powerful humming. The sound of the gentle rain and the shifting colors of the background gave a sense of growing uneasiness and eerie calmness at the same time.

The stories of these wrongful convictions shows how the justice system fails its people, and it touches on race and the death penalty and how we need to rethink such things. This play is extremely thought-provoking and important to watch and even more important to remember. SMTD’s production of this documentary play reminds us how relevant and timeless this work is. Though the sentences in the play took place during the 20th century, there are plenty of people still waiting to be exonerated today, and we walk away from this play with those people in mind.

REVIEW: Love and Information

What’s the purpose of life if not to find love and learn information? “Love and Information” features many short vignettes of everyday life, showing scenes everyone can relate with to some extent. With the anonymous characters running around onstage, there is a universality of the scenes that makes everything connect. The play explores different variances of love and methods of information as the characters struggle to gain information and connect with others.

The title of each vignette aptly described the main point of a scene. Words such as “secret”, “remote”, “silence”, “dream”, “privacy”, “children”, and “facts” convey the information within that scene in a succinct way, while giving some frame of reference so the audience isn’t completely lost. The reoccurrence of certain themes, such as the child who didn’t know certain emotions, brought an underlying thread between these vignettes that might otherwise be hard to connect.

The 18-person SMTD cast embodied all the characters wonderfully, slipping into one persona only to run offstage and return as someone completely different, though the intrinsic drives of that person remain the same. This show, written in 2012, remains completely contemporary, featuring the latest dance moves and songs and all the current trends. The presence of screens on cell phones and televisions is also prominent, a modern source of constant information, one that can invade our privacy and also steal our attention.

The stark contrasts of some of the scenes leave a stronger resonance. One character has perfect memory and can recall any detail of any date, while another character can no longer recognize his own wife. One character suddenly and happily remembers a vivid memory of his dad during a memory game, while another character is traumatized by a flashback they wish they never remembered. Information is fleeting, and it can also be absolute.

The same can be said of love. Affairs can mean the end of something great, or the start of something better. As one vignette points out, sex is a way of transferring and creating information through an act of love, connecting the title of this play neatly.

The play ponders the question of science, philosophy, religion, mathematics, politics, and humanity — everything that gives us thought, forms our personalities, and makes us human. The characters range from children to elders, and it also touches on mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and attempted suicides.

One of the most appealing aspects of the play was the scenery, set designs, and costumes. Each separate scene was distinguished by its color, and all the props and clothing accessories that appeared in the scene emphasized this distinct feature. With a chilling white backdrop surrounded by white boxes and actors in all white clothing to start with, the evolving and uniforming color schemes around this base neutral color brought life to this play.

Love and information can bring great joy and meaning to our lives. However, loss and pain are also facets of love, just as information can be painful and lost just as easily. This play leaves us trying to make sense of the universe, our existence, our relationships, and our daily lives.

REVIEW: U-M Chamber Jazz Recital

Never before had I considered the mandolin or banjo to have a place in the jazz world. And I certainly did not expect to experience a solo of either of these instruments in any context outside of a renaissance festival or a square dance competition, respectively.

Boy, was I wrong.

The performance was split into three sets, each a different student group exploring a wildly different facet of the music genre.

The first erred on the side of folk, incorporating a sound more twangy than I’d have expected from jazz musicians. But the smoothness of the violin’s bow sliding across the strings and the low voice of the cello lurking under the melody rounded out the tunes they played, making the sound much more complex and multi-dimensional. And, I must stress, Noah Fishman on mandolin and Matt Davis on banjo went hard.

The next group played in the classic big-band style of jazz, bursting into the music the second they began with grand flourishes of slurred crescendos and bright moments of staccatoed frenzy. It was hard seeing the relatedness of the first and second groups, even though they were a part of the same genre, and shared a few of the same instruments. But rather than this near-dichotomy being a distraction, it worked as a testament to jazz’s dynamicity. It was disappointing to me, as a piano player, that the pianist Kaysen Chown was barely audible amidst the brash bass tones, as the higher pitch and lightness of the instrument would have complimented the music greatly.

The last group to play featured a jazz of the sultry kind; the high call of the saxophones (Peter Goggin on alto and William Wood on tenor) was almost erotic. The songs were rambling and suave, able to warm the mind and body simultaneously. I could find myself in some underground jazz club, surrounded by the coolest cats around, dressed in all black, perhaps sporting a beret.

When I walked out of the auditorium, I still felt warm, even despite the biting wind of the mid-November night. Maybe it was the well-heated building, but more likely it was an effect of the music. I strode back to my dorm with a strange new confidence derived from the sheer sophistication of the evening. This lasted nearly the whole walk home, ending abruptly as I tripped on a crack in the sidewalk (a testament to the exclusiveness of the genre, maybe; one can fall out of its favor with a single uncool move).

All in all, a good night, thanks to this group of talented SMTD students!