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!

REVIEW: Passing Strange

The lights dimmed in the Arthur Miller Theater. Before I knew it, someone ran up to me offering me a lollipop, surprising me yet bringing me a giddy joy. The contagious energy of the cast started from the very first second and continued all the way to the end. Passing Strange was a very contemporary musical. Actors took turn acting as props, the stage was very open with a lot of objects being thrown around onstage and falling from the ceiling, and all the actors remained on the stage the entire time, sitting on the sides and being engaged throughout.

We follow the story of the Youth, played magnificently by Liam Allen, a young musician who discovers a newfound revelation and, under the guidance of his closeted gay choir director, turns to marijuana and rock and roll. He decides to leave his mother behind in Los Angeles and travels to Europe, seeking musical inspiration and a life worth living and writing about. However, after he spends some time with free-spirited artists in Amsterdam, getting high and making love every day, he claims that he must leave because everything is too good in paradise and there is nothing to fuel his music. Paradise doesn’t allow for pain and suffering, a very real and natural thing to experience. Without the ability to create art, he runs away. Though he is trying to find something real, he builds a fake persona in Berlin in order to be accepted by the Nowhaus artists with his Blackness. The Youth struggles to understand what life and love is about, and as he faces grief near the end, clings to art to resurrect the only real thing in his life. Finally, the Narrator, who turns out to be an older and more mature Youth self-reflecting on his life’s journey, realizes that love is more powerful than “the real.”

The loud rock & roll and punk rock music of this musical was compelling and performed brilliantly, and the directing was absolutely phenomenal. There were plenty of comedic moments, and the underlying seriousness of the musical really came alive in its final moments, all of which were delivered in an enjoyable yet thought-provoking way. The final scene with everyone standing in a line shining a light let the artistic message of this coming-of-age and self-discovery story linger.

Mr. Venus’ Riot Cabaret contained some striking lines that Matthew Sanguine delivered in a brilliant performance. Though it is supposed to come across as avant-garde and over the top, there is an existentialist truth to this little show that resonates in the heart and mind. He sings over and over: “Ideas are dependable there’s a new one every week / Emotions are expendable because they aren’t unique / Culture is cosmetic / What’s inside is just a lie.”

The fourth wall was nonexistent in this show. As the Narrator, Justin Showell provided striking commentary throughout the show, interacting with the actors occasionally and even talking directly to the audience. In a meta story about the Pretzel Man, the Narrator reveals that the Youth was trying to find something “real” in art that could only be found in art. Passing Strange was deeply moving and provoked a lot of self-reflection about the purpose of life that will change how I interact with myself and others as I strive to find my own version of love and “the real.”

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.

REVIEW: Sweet Charity

The music by Cy Coleman burst out of the pit of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater with grand flair and style. Dance hall hostess Charity made her way onto the stage, dancing her little dance with a sweet fashion that becomes characteristic of her personality throughout the 1960s musical appropriately named Sweet Charity.

Nevada Koenig portrayed that sweetness and purity in Charity beautifully with an unbridled and unlimited amount of excitement and belief in the greatness in people. With “big” dreams for her life, Charity’s aspirations can be viewed as naively sweet, which makes the heartbreak she experiences over and over that much more painful to watch.

Charity comes across film star Vittorio Vidal for a night to remember, and Blake Bojewski gave the audience a song to remember as his majestic voice floated through the air in his showstopping number, “Too Many Tomorrows.” As Charity laments about greatness and love, the fickle finger of fate finally falls in her favor during the hilarious elevator scene with Oscar, played by Lake Wilburn who captured the panic with excellent comedic acting and accurately showed Oscar’s personality as a timid guy stuck in his own head.

Sweet Charity is basically a romantic comedy musical with a small dance show in the middle of the first act. The dance number for “Rich Man’s Frug” was spectacular in every sense. It actually felt like a real dance show and I never wanted it to end. Again, the ensemble brought the energy to the stage as the Rhythm of Life Church, which indeed is a powerful beat.

While Charity may not have purity in the purest sense, she still possessed a purity that is rare in the world today: she believed in the best of people and in the best of the future, and that is a sweet purity that is hard to come by.

Overall, Sweet Charity was a wonderful production by the Department of Musical Theatre in every aspect, from the costumes to the pit orchestra to the set designs to the acting to the choreography to the singing. Though I am not a huge romcom fan, I enjoyed this musical and its message of pure bliss and hope greatly, particularly because of the phenomenal orchestra and cast that made Sweet Charity that much sweeter.

REVIEW: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Have you ever had your stomach hurt from laughing so hard one second and then holding your breath, trying not to cry the next second? That was me Friday night as I sat in the Arthur Miller Theatre, a room completely tense and enraptured as it awaited the judgment on Judas Iscariot — a traitor, a follower, a son, an enemy, a friend, a betrayer, a human.

I read The Last Days of Judas Iscariot in my creative writing class last semester, so I already knew how good this play was. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s ability to craft a work that is simultaneously light and heavy is a marvel in of itself, and one I greatly appreciated when I studied it.

However, I was not prepared for SMTD’s production of this play. This 18-person cast found itself waddling through a script as dense as osmium and managed to give the theater a collective headache that was frequently alleviated with the hearty laughter that this play relies on to carry its extremely deep message.

As a contemporary play, the updated references from 2005 in the script, as well as the wardrobe and music choices, brought a fresh take on this still-relevant work that is religious in every aspect and completely more than religion at the same time.

Everyone put their heart, mind, and soul into their character, and their dominant presence on the stage made the stage disappear and brought these characters to life. They nailed every monologue (and boy, were those some monologues!) and beat and intricate detail of a personality that made each character unique.

In purgatory, we catch glimpses of complex souls and the competing narratives of stories and the duality of humanity. The dynamic between the short-tempered judge struggling to find his truth and the incompetent and innocent bailiff struggling to find an acceptable case for the judge was hilariously captured by Ben Ahlers and Josh Strobl as Strobl ran around trying to appease the demands being barked at him.

The courtroom atmosphere was enhanced by the questioning that the condescending, flirtatious El-Fayoumy and the cold, determined Cunningham intensely fired back and forth. Alexander Sherwin made me comically uncomfortable with his over-the-top approach to law and flattery, and Kat Ward’s command of the courtroom in his presence was a victory for all women. Speaking of women — Mikaela Secada completely dominated the fierce and sassy Saint Monica, and her scene is a beautiful example of the complexity of the nature of emotions an individual can harbor, her nagging attitude and honest compassion making her monologue surprisingly and ultimately human.

The penultimate scene with Judas and Jesus is heartwrenching. As Liam Allen and Mason Reeves explored the depths of despair in a plea just imploring for love and forgiveness, I felt my heart stop and time froze as the pure emotions being displayed on the stage was too much and too real. Allen and Reeves completely nailed this powerful moment, and their sincerity and intensity made this play that much harder to watch and grapple with — which is a testimony to the entire cast’s talent and ability.

We make our own choices. And those choices inherently include sins. What we do with those sins — the emotional acceptance necessary of our actions — is also up to us. If anything is to come afterward, we must first be able to forgive ourselves and believe in ourselves before we can look around for forgiveness from others and believe in others.

I could go on and on about this production and the cast and crew, but I recommend you go see it for yourself. This authentically raw performance by SMTD is one that will forever be stuck in my heart as I continue to wrestle with the moral, philosophical, theological, and psychological problems this humorous and dramatic masterpiece poses and this cast so wonderfully performed .

REVIEW: Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood

A strange image came to me on Saturday night, while I was watching Joshua Bell walk out across the stage of Hill Auditorium for the first time. The vast auditorium was packed with people — some college-age, many adults — and a sweeping wave of applause rolled across the many rows and balconies at the sight of him coming out. I had been to Hill Auditorium once before, to see the Avett Brothers my freshman year. For some reason, the thought occurred to me of how different it was, watching Joshua Bell walk onto the stage versus watching the Avett Brothers — or any musical group in the popular sphere with a large following — do the same thing. There were no whoops or hollers or screams of, “I love you, Joshua!” He walked slowly and professionally, violin in hand. The thought struck me out of nowhere and seemed like a funny one.

Yet in the world of classical music, Joshua Bell is the equivalent of a rock star. He’s been one of the most famous violinists in the world for years, and has played at numerous enviable venues around the globe. So while they weren’t leaping out of their seats or holding up signs with his name on them, the audience members did burst collectively into a roaring applause when they saw him.

And he didn’t disappoint. The first item on the program was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Violin Sonata No. 32 in B-flat Major, K. 454,” which starts out very calmly. I was surprised at the soft, understated nature of the performance, but the piece soon picked up in excitement and speed. And no matter what the mood, Bell and Sam Haywood, renowned pianist and Bell’s fellow performer, were able to handle it with deftness and grace. The violin sonata was at turns playful and dreamy, energetic and tender. It was splendidly interesting to watch as Bell and Haywood appeared to trade phrases of the piece off between the two of them; one moment Bell’s playing would be more pronounced, with Haywood’s piano muted softly in the background, and the next, it would be the other way around.

This pattern continued throughout the rest of the concert. The next piece they played was Richard Strauss’s “Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18,” which they approached with the same level of attentiveness, care, and passion. Bell moved around the stage a great deal, seeming to feel the music physically during particularly enlivened moments. Bell and Haywood, who have played together on many occasions during the past, continued to blend their respective sounds together seamlessly, responding to one another in volume and time as if they were having a genuine conversation through their music.

The third piece on the program, and the final listed prior to the concert, was Franz Schubert’s “Fantasie for Violin and Piano in C Major, D. 934.” This piece showcased the same skill and emotion, and it was an added pleasure when, following an encore, Bell announced two additional pieces from the stage. Much like a rock star, he closed out the night with encores and wild applause. When all was said and done, the auditorium was as alive with excitement as it had been waiting for him to come out for the first time a couple of hours earlier. He might not play rock music particularly, but the man is unquestionably a star.