CCO Manos Playhouse.jpg: “Where The Wilde Things Are” is one of two short one-acts brought to life by Flint area young people in “Mano’s Children’s Playhouse” at Buckham Alley Theatre. Photo: Courtesy Buckham Alley Theatre
Preview: The Michigan Improv & Laugh Festival – Part 2
Local, national improv troupes hit the stage this week at Improv Inferno
For Part 1 of this story, please see this week’s edition of Curtain Calls.
“It’s something we’ve wanted to do since we opened,” Improv Inferno’s Dan Izzo said of the Michigan Improv & Laugh Festival that’s running through July 16 at his club in Ann Arbor. “But we were waiting for the time to be right. And now is the time to do it.”
Why that is shouldn’t be hard to figure out, as the number of performers involved in improvisation has grown faster than the family of bunnies that live in my backyard. And new improv troupes seem to spring up on an almost weekly basis. “So it felt like the momentum was there to really put a national spotlight on the local scene,” Izzo said.
Local interest in the art of improvisation took a giant leap forward in 1993 with the opening of Second City Detroit. That helped spawn a plethora of small, independent improv troupes, including the successful Planet Ant Improv Colony. Then two years ago, Izzo and co-founder Sabrina Harper opened the Inferno in downtown Ann Arbor. With those three institutions forming the backbone of Metro Detroit’s improv scene, Izzo believes local improvisers – and those who might want to explore the art form – now have plenty of opportunities to sharpen their skills and test the waters. “The more opportunities there are, the more people are going to be drawn to it.”
So much so, Izzo said, that the number of people showing up at local auditions has more than tripled over the past few years.
Finding local talent to participate in the first-ever Michigan Improv and Laugh Festival wasn’t difficult, and neither was attracting nationally-acclaimed troupes. “We ended up with more groups applying than we could take, which is really cool,” Izza said. “There’s a pretty big online improv community, so it was pretty easy to spread the word.”
Experience in running similar festivals in Chicago (Izzo) and New York (Harper) also helped. “That’s how we ended up with groups from Chicago and North Carolina coming in,” Izzo said.
The criteria Izzo used to select national troupes was simple. “We were looking for groups that are doing interesting things – things that aren’t done very often out there.”
Especially in Michigan.
“The cutting edge of what’s happening with improv is not necessarily being done in Michigan,” Izzo, who also serves on staff at Second City, pointed out. “The talent level is as good as what you’ll find anywhere in the country, but the innovation isn’t happening locally.”
That’s because, Izzo believes, Michigan improvisers haven’t reached the level of development where innovation takes place. “Like with any art form, there’s that first level where everyone’s getting to learn how to do it. Then there’s that second level where they learn how to do it well. And then there’s the final level where everyone starts to break the boundaries and figure out new ways to do it. There’s a paradigm shift that happens at that point.”
Still, there’s plenty of good work being done in the local improv community, Izzo said, “but it’s easy to overlook us because we’re so close to Chicago.”
Despite Izzo’s belief that Michigan talent hasn’t quite reached that final stage of development, many area improvisers have gone on to successful careers in the entertainment industry. Joshua Funk of MTV’s “Wild ‘N Out” and Keegan-Michael Key of “MADtv” and Animal Planet’s “The Planet’s Funniest Animals,” for example, were among the founding members of Planet Ant. Other notables include Larry Joe Campbell (“The World According to Jim”) and Nyima Funk (“Wild ‘N Out” and “The Style Show”). And several others have appeared in main stage productions at Second City Detroit and later moved on to the Chicago stage – or elsewhere.
Michigan isn’t just a farm team for out-of-state improv theaters, however. Izzo’s Improv Inferno has helped boost the state’s reputation considerably. “Many of the national improvisers that have been here are blown away by the scale of the operation,” he said. “A lot of improv is done in hole-in-the-wall places with folding chairs and not a lot of ambiance. So when they come here, and we’ve got a full bar, it’s well lit and well decorated – that automatically gives us a few bumps up the ladder.”
It’s that ambiance that first-time guests at the Inferno appreciate. “We’re trying to turn this fun, underground ‘thing’ into a fun, ABOVE ground thing – put a little polish on it – because it deserves to be seen,” Izzo said. “We’re not on the cutting edge, but it shows how far you can go with improv. You don’t have to be dingy and dark – or apologetic about it.”
Izzo certainly won’t have to apologize for the lineup that’s planned for this week’s festival. “I’m proud of the entire festival. The improv you’ll see is not like any other kind of improv you’ve seen. People should expect to have a really good time. They’re going to laugh at things they haven’t seen before.”
“The Michigan Improv & Laugh Festival” runs Wed.-Sun., July 12 – 16 at Improv Inferno, 309 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. Show times are at 8 & 10 p.m. Tickets: $5-$20. For information or tickets call 734-214-7080, or to view the festival’s complete schedule, log on to http://www.improvinferno.com.
Professional Theater News from Around Town:
Compiled by Donald V. Calamia
Lesbian vampires flock to Ferndale
FERNDALE – Don’t be frightened by the title. “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” is anything but scary. In fact, Joe Bailey, the director of this local production of the off-Broadway hit, describes it as a “rollicking, hysterical, over-the-top camp fest” featuring men in dresses, supermodels overdosing on LSD and Las Vegas floor shows.
“Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” invades Ferndale Friday and Saturday nights beginning July 21 through August 12 at Xhedos Cafe at 240 W. Nine Mile Road.
“Vampire” is the saga of two fatally seductive female vampires whose paths first collide in ancient Sodom. Their bitter rivalry endures for 2,000 years, with stops along the way in 1920s Hollywood and bitchin’ 1980s Las Vegas.
“It’s very much in the same vein as ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,'” says Bailey, whose production company, Who Wants Cake? is resurrecting playwright Charles Busch’s classic. “We just want to make people laugh and have a great time.”
Originally performed in New York’s East Village in 1984, “Vampire” grew to be such a hit, it moved to off-Broadway where it became one of the longest-running shows in off-Broadway history.
Who Wants Cake? is a local theater company committed to bringing quality, alternative theater to the Ferndale/Royal Oak area. The company previously performed a benefit production of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” for the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project at the First United Methodist Church, Ferndale. Last winter it performed a one-night, reverse-gender version of Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” at Xhedos. On the coldest night of the year, with almost no publicity, they drew a respectable crowd, Bailey recalls.
“Xhedos is the perfect spot for this production. The demographic at Xhedos is exactly who this show will appeal to,” Bailey says. He hopes “Vampire” will attract a wider audience to the coffee house/vegetarian cafe, which features live performances, art shows, poetry readings, belly dancing and now, extended-run plays.
The “Vampire” cast includes Joe Plambeck, Chad Hetzel, Audra Lord, Melissa Beckwith, Nate Cavanaugh and Jamie Warrow.
Tickets are $10, and they can be purchased at Record Time, 262 W. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale, 248-336-TIME, or at the door.
‘Pretty Fire’ returns for an encore
DETROIT – Plowshares Theatre Company proudly brings back actress and playwright Charlayne Woodard’s charming story of a young girl growing up, “Pretty Fire.”
In five autobiographical vignettes, Woodard tells the moving tale of her African-American family through three generations of love, struggle and triumph. This NAACP award-winning play is a one-woman tour de force.
The Plowshares production features up-and-coming talent Janee Ann Smith reprising her Detroit Free Press Best Actress Award-winning performance. A native Detroiter, Janee is a recent graduate of Wayne State University’s Theatre Department where she performed in productions as diverse as “Hospice” by Pearl Cleage and “Anne of Green Gables.” Her talents and charm will bring these stories alive in an endearing and touching way.
Pretty Fire will be presented at the new Bolls Family YMCA Theater. The show will run July 13 through July 30.
Tickets range from $17.50 – $25 and are available at the Plowshares box office or at the door one hour before each performance. Some shows are already sold out.
The Bolls Theatre is located at 1401 Broadway Avenue in the Downtown Bolls Family YMCA between John R and Grand River.
For tickets or information, call Plowshares at 313-872-0279.
Turn of the century baseball player celebrated at Anderson Theater
DEARBORN – “Matty: An Evening with Christy Mathewson” starring Eddie Frierson will hit the stage of the Anderson Theater inside Henry Ford Museum for one performance only on Saturday, July 22 at 3 p.m.
Frierson, a professional actor and former UCLA baseball player and baseball coach, made his first research trip 21 years ago to study the life of turn-of-the-century baseball great Christy Mathewson. For the next 11 years, he wrote, re-wrote, performed,re-wrote some more and rehearsed what would open in 1995 as his critically acclaimed one-man play, “Matty: An Evening with Christy Mathewson.”
“Matty” opened in Los Angeles in the fall of 1995 and set numerous attendance records and garnered just about every award that the Los Angeles theatre scene had to offer before moving to the East Coast for a stellar four-month run at the Historic Lamb’s Theatre in Time Square – a run, once again, showered with universal critical acclaim. Famed critic Clive Barnes called it “A perfect pitch! Pure virtuosity!” And National Public Radio listed the show as “One of the Ten Best Plays of the Year!” Bob Costas said, “You don’t have to be a baseball fan to be completely engaged by Eddie Frierson’s performance.”
In 1997, “Matty” became the first outside event to ever be brought in and performed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, and it returns on a semi-annual basis with great fanfare.
Mathewson died October 7, 1925 in the remote village of Saranac Lake, New York, of tuberculosis. “Matty” was just a baseball card to Frierson in high school- a legend, a Hall-of-Famer, the guy who invented the screwball. Through his research, Frierson found that Mathewson was much, much more than that – he was an exceptional man: He was an advisor to presidents, a toast of New York with George M. Cohan and John McGraw., a philosopher, teacher, scholar, national idol, international celebrity, Broadway play co-author, two-reel movie star, vaudevillian, journalist, forester, musician, singer, checkers champion, practical joker, shrewd businessman, major stockholder in the railroad system – and “regular fellow.
This evening of theatre is not a chronicle of a “goody-goody or a mollycoddle.” Rather, it is a collection of a man’s personal observances during a fascinating time in our history – observances of his life, a life he lived to the fullest. Using baseball as a backdrop, Mathewson draws his experiences in the Big League as a metaphor for life. He raises many questions. Some are answered, some are not. But, according to him, “That’s the way life is. You can sum it up with the title of the Cohan song, Life’s a Very Funny Proposition, After All.”
This play is the memoir of a great American life, as it was experienced by the man who experienced it. It’s a great show for both baseball and theatre enthusiasts.
Frierson is thrilled to bring”Matty” to Detroit, one of the great baseball cities, and introduce its residents to one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
Tickets to “Matty” are $16.
For information or to purchase tickets in advance, please call 313-982-6001 or log on to http://www.TheHenryFord.org.
Mason Street Warehouse announces its second show of the 2006 Season
SAUGATUCK – Mason Street Warehouse, an uptown theater in downtown Saugatuck, is pleased to announce the second show in its 2006 season. The MSW tradition of presenting new and unique plays and musicals continues with the regional premiere of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” sponsored in part by Daniel J. Reid. This production follows the Jerry Springer-like soap opera antics of a whacky collection of characters in Florida’s Armadillo Acres Trailer Park.
The wonderfully funny cast of characters includes an agoraphobic housewife, her toll collector husband, their road-kill-aficionado son and an on-the-run stripper looking for love. A trio of busy-body neighbors provides appropriately tacky commentary throughout the show, complimented by a country pop/rock score.
Guest director to Mason Street Warehouse David Glenn Armstrong said “I am thrilled to be doing the regional premiere of ‘The Great American Trailer Park Musical’ in West Michigan. Particularly with this definitive cast which brings great warmth and jaw dropping hysterics to one of the funniest musicals in recent memory”.
The show’s equity cast, from New York and Denver includes: Klea Blackhurst, Beth Flynn, Erin Maguire, Amanda Ryan Paige and Timothy Shew. The two local actors in the cast are Kelly Carey of Grand Rapids and Patrick Newton, a music theatre intern from Western Michigan University.
Tickets to all 2006 Mason Street Warehouse productions are: $33 for Friday and Saturday night shows ($30 for Seniors and Students); $29.50 for performances on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday Evening ($26.50 for Seniors and Students); $22 for Sunday Bargain Matinees ($20 for Seniors and Students.) Group rates are also available.
Tickets are available at the MSW box office or by calling 269-857-4898. For more information, visit http://www.masonstreetwarehouse.org.
Theater for Young Audiences:
Buckham Alley Theatre presents ‘Mano’s Children’s Playhouse’
FLINT – Buckham Alley Theatre continues its tradition of bringing quality children’s shows to the Flint area. “Mano’s Children’s Playhouse” is a production that is totally produced by students and children from age 5 to 18. Adults are only involved as advisors, for promotion and to assist with costumes and set building.
This year’s production includes two short one act plays, both based on children’s literature. “Where the Wild Things Are” is based on the Maurice Sendak story and is directed by 16-year-old Emma Lazar. Lazar has been involved in the children’s productions in the past and is active in her school drama group.
“Many Moons,” which is based on a short story by James Thurber, is directed by Kendall Smith, also 16. Smith has recently been seen performing at Buckham in “Waving Goodbye.”
Students also are manning the lights and sound, thanks to Jill Docter and Ethan McMurray.
Each performance will also include individual and group skits and musical numbers by members of the cast. This will be an enjoyable evening out with the whole family.
Performances of “Mano’s Children’s Playhouse” are scheduled for July 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 7 p.m., and July 16 and 23 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets for all shows are $5.
Buckham Alley Theatre is located at 512 Buckham Alley, Flint.
For reservations and ticket information, call 810-239-4477 or log on to http://www.buckhamtheatre.com.
A ‘vine time’ at the Baldwin Theatre
ROYAL OAK – Swing on in to the Baldwin Theatre to hear the incredible tale of Mowgli, a young boy raised by wolves, in Stagecrafters Youth Theatre (SYT) production of “The Jungle Book,” by Vera Morris adapted from the Mowgli stories by Rudyard Kipling.
Youths ages 8 to 18 will perform on the Main Stage at the beautiful Baldwin Theatre, 415 S. Lafayette in downtown Royal Oak from July 20 – 23.
With the help of his friends – the bear Baloo (Joseph Boehnlein), the panther Bagheera (Christopher Vanover) and the python Kaa (played by Joe Cavanaugh, Regan Steen, Anna Marck, Kelley Waterfall and Alicia Thomas) – Mowgli (Mackey Daniel) learns the ways of the jungle.
Scott Forney directs “The Jungle Book.” “The Youth Theatre committee has been throwing this show back and forth for years and I always expressed interest in directing it. When it finally went from a ‘possibility’ to an actual production, I jumped at the chance.”
SYT’s version of “The Jungle Book” is not based on the Disney musical. “Disney did a wonderful representation of their own version of the story but added a few characters and music to make it appeal to their target animation audience. Other production companies have also made their own ‘real-life’ renditions of the stories that are great as well. Our version is closer to the actual book. It is not a comedy but the story has some very wonderful characters as well as lessons that we can adapt to our everyday lives,” says Forney.
“The Jungle Book” and “Mowgli Stories” written by Rudyard Kipling were the inspiration for this adaptation by Vera Morris. The story takes place in the jungles of India – a favorite place for Kipling as he was born in India and lived there until he was eight years old. He and his family returned to their native country, England, but later he lived in India seven more years exploring and writing books and poems.
A fundraiser for the Jennifer DeRita Scholarship for the Performing Arts will be held in the lobby before, at intermission and after the performances. “We’ve come up with a very cute idea that is related to the show but I won’t reveal what it is just yet. Please make a small contribution to this wonderful program if you can,” says Forney.
Tickets for all shows are: $6 (youth) and $9 (adults). All seats are reserved.
For schedule information or tickets, call 248-541-6430 or log on to http://www.stagecrafters.org.