REVIEW: The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon was a wonderful production, put on by Broadway in Detroit at the Fisher Theatre. It is undeniable that the stage was almost glowing throughout the entire show. The bright lights and set decor were a defining part of the experience, giving it the livelihood that such a musical, with compelling identities and enthusiastic characters, deserves. The vibrant colors of the costumes further complemented these strong production aspects, while also playing well into building the separate identities of the characters. The animated performances of the cast were obviously doing the heavy-lifting. Between the identifiable characters, the strong choreography, or the catchy, witty tunes, the cast managed to bring life to the entire show.
For people who are unfamiliar with the show, here it is: two 19-year-old mormon missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Young, are sent out to Uganda for their first two year mission, and it’s not what they expected. Price had hoped to be sent to Orlando Florida, and follower Young just wanted to be Price’s sidekick – but instead he ends up converting many Ugandans on his own terms. Through their adventures with religion, culture, and interaction, the show expresses satire, and sometimes even deeper emotion.
My favorite parts of the show would have to be the songs “Baptize Me” and “Joseph Smith, American Moses” and the choreography. In the former, Elder Young goes through the process of baptizing Nabulungi, which is full of sexual implications. I think I loved this one because Young is such a charismatic character – he brings many laughs to the show, while also forcing the audience to empathize with him because of his low self-esteem. In the latter, the villagers put on a show for the Mormon missionaries, which is entertaining thanks to the juxtaposition between the Ugandans and the Americans reaction. The choreography is a major part of the show, paying tribute to all different genres and parts of musical history. Such complexity and variety from song to song is refreshing, fun, and completely classic. I guess it’d be foolish to expect anything but hyper-theatricality, even if it is a show focused on Mormons in Uganda.
The only issue I had with the show was, well, the show. I knew that it was somewhat controversial, but generally hailed as a brilliant production. However, as I sat through the first act, it took me some time to warm up to the jokes and feel comfortable with them. This is not because I don’t like or am not used to comedy – I love it. And beyond that, find it to be an extremely effective means, specifically when battling confusing identities, ones that are often stereotyped or oppressed. Comedy is awesome. But for some reason, the portrayal of the Ugandans, an imperative part of the show, was not cutting it for me. And despite having thought and read about the story, I still cannot put my finger on what exactly turned me off. It could be due to the current climate our world is in – one where outlandish, seemingly ridiculous ideas that appeared and functioned as jokes are finding their footing in societies that are supposed to be increasingly “progressive” and “forward-moving.” It could be a variety of reasons, objective or subjective. I’m toying with ideas here, still trying to understand why I didn’t love my matinee musical experience quite as much as I hoped that I would. Instead I’ve been left as a slightly confused google-searcher and review-hunter.
However, I saw that by the second act, as a whole, the Ugandans were more humanized and credible. They knew that everything Young was spewing to them, about kissing frogs to cure AIDS and yatta yatta, was metaphors. And by the end of the show, we’re on a positive note again, just as hopeful as Elder Price was at the beginning when he hoped to be sent to Orlando, acknowledging the importance of religion and beliefs to many people, no matter their differences. All in all, I’d say The Book of Mormon is a put-together production worth seeing, and one worth taking a more critical look at, too.

REVIEW: Let The Right One In

The concept of this story is oddly unique for a vampire narrative. Just in the last decade, we’ve endured an explosion of often awful, needlessly obnoxious tales of those immortal blood suckers. Of course, there’s the Twilight saga, which infested the hearts and minds of middle schoolers everywhere (and of which came an entire parody film aptly named Vampires Suck), but we must also remember other spoofy concoctions like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and What We Do In the Shadows. Thus, when presented with yet another vampire-related tale, it’s hard not to shudder before stepping forward to accept it.

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I think I know what it is that makes Let The Right One In different from the rest of the recent slew of trashy vampire stories: its innocence. The main characters Oskar and Eli are children (or at least, Eli looks like a child), which restricts the themes of lust present in every other depiction of vampires in popular culture. While there is action in Eli’s killing, these scenes are distorted by the fact of her childish appearance–she cannot be taken for a fearsome murderer when we see her as a little girl. The film industry, however, loves to draw heavily on action, relying on it while allowing the actual storyline to suffer.

The Rude Mechanicals put on a great production, despite a few flaws that served as mild distractions from the play. The lighting worked wonders on the mood of the set, a ghostly blue that made the trees glow eerily, and made the playground structure dully shine. Although the soundtrack sometimes seemed like a Stranger Things ripoff, the music was still beautifully emotional, and was able to enhance the feeling of a scene. There were a few minor issues with the timing of some sound effects, as well as parts where the music overpowers dialogue or is simply distracting next to the action of the characters.

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In terms of acting, I was impressed by most of the cast. Oskar (played by Chan Yu Hin Bryan) made a quite believable 12 year old, though he could easily switch on and off a more serious tone. The bullies (Ethan Haberfield and Nathan Correll) were deliciously evil, contorting their faces into bloodthirsty smirks as they tortured little Oskar, even managing to make their voices crack in true prepubescent form.

I was disappointed to find myself feeling something lacking in Eli’s (Emma Steiner) performance. In emotional scenes with her “father,” she was amazing; the stage lights seemed to give more light to her eyes than those of anyone else in the cast. Playing a character who is a 200 year old playing a 12 year old is no easy feat, I can imagine. I could see she was taking an understandable angle: Eli was stiffly attempting to act the same age as Oskar, but did not have the social intelligence to do so properly. This angle should have worked, but at some points it only sounded false and robotic. The same goes for Oskar’s mother (Juliana Tassos). She seemed to have some trouble with acting as a character decades her senior–she simply did not have experience to draw off of, and instead came off as a caricature of a stressed, aging alcoholic. Beyond this, though, she was quite skilled at knowing how to place herself on the set, from the positioning of her limbs on the couch to a somber lean on a tree, she did a good job of becoming a sad skeleton of a woman.

I would recommend that anyone looking to delve into the wonderful world of theatre attends an upcoming performance by the Rude Mechanicals. You can access their calendar of events at their website: umrudemechanicals.com.

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: 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: First Date

“The One.” Everyone is on the lookout for their soulmate to settle down with. That special someone may not be who you are expecting or are used to however. First Date was a light, funny, and awkward musical exploring a blind date that has the potential to go somewhere.

Aaron’s (Drew Benson) nervousness and Casey’s (Sarah Mazurek) hostility were apparent in their initial interactions — and if first impressions were bought, that would’ve been the end of this first date. However, the date lives on as Casey ignores her hilariously flamboyant best friend Reggie’s bailout calls, and they gradually move past the small talk and delve into talks about religion, passion, and the future.

At each and every turn, they each imagine their own voice of reason and doubt in the form of best friend Gabe and sister Lauren. From imaginary (or real?) babies to bad boy exes, every aspect of the future and the past is brought to the present throughout this first date. The dangers of the world wide web were brought alive through the manifestation of Google and every single post that can never be erased. There was sass and attitude in their conversations, and this first date was truly a journey of blunders and embarrassment.

Through the laughter, there were still scenes of sensitive topics among the musical numbers. Aaron remembers the tragic love of his passed mother and seeks closure with his ex-fiance through a rocking cathartic song. Casey engages in an honest introspective reflection about her personality and the inner walls she’s put up in order to protect herself. The vulnerability they express brings them closer as they reveal more of their true selves, despite the initial odds of their personalities clicking being against them.

Sarah Mazurek and Drew Benson’s vocals were beautiful and complemented each other perfectly, and everyone else provided great backup or solo numbers about, for instance, food. This nine person cast fully embodied every quirky character they turned into, and the dynamics between everyone were truly entertaining.

As Casey and Aaron ignored the voices that followed them throughout the entire night and decided to take the leap, the last scene is one that is highly predictable, but heartwarming nonetheless (in addition to a surprise potential relationship forming right before the end). A2CT’s production of First Date was a feel-good play riddled with amusing quirks, brutal honesty, and enlightening humor.

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 .