Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Eagles keeping wildlife drive opening "fuzzy"

by Janet I. Martineau
The opening program of the 2011 “Nurturing Nature” series will deal with a much-anticipated event in Saginaw County -- the debut of the 7.5-mile open-daily wildlife drive through the 9,501-acre refuge.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5, at the Green Point Environmental Learning Center, refuge manager Steven Kahl will talk about the building of “Shiawassee’s Wildlife Drive.” Admission is free to members of the Friends of the Shiawassee National Wildlife refuge; $2 at the door for others.
So when is the grand opening?
“I wish I could give a simple answer, but a pair of eagles had to make things complicated,” says Kahl. “The tentatively scheduled opening is April 15. But, a pair of bald eagles built a nest within 50 feet of the road. It blew down in recent windstorms. However, they may come back and nest right nearby. If so, we may have to delay opening until approximately May 15.
“This date is fuzzy because it depends if the eagles start nesting early or late.”
The auto tour route also will close annually at the beginning of waterfowl season, which us usually in mid-October, through mid-April.
During his talk, Kahl will show pictures of the layout of the route as well as its $3.3 million construction process, and will answer questions people have about it. The route was built almost entirely by local  contractors as Kahl and his refuge staff made sure nothing was overlooked, such as permits, engineering, overseeing contractors, coordinating around everything else  going on at the refuge -- and those eagles.
The drive will will meander past forests, grasslands, marshes, open water pools and the Shiawassee River and will enhance the ability of visitors to see waterfowl, herons, eagles and a great diversity of other wildlife. Slides during the Jan. 5 presentation will show that terrain and the critters. 
And further, Kahl says, drivers will be able to see the management practices the refuge uses to attract this abundance of wildlife.
There will be places for people to pull over, stop and get out to take pictures or just enjoy the view. 
Kahl says approximately only 25 percent of the more than 540 national wildlife refuges have auto tour routes. Seney in the Upper Peninsula has one.

Impact to wildlife is the utmost concern in offering them, he said. “That is why we will will close the route from mid-October to mid-April, when  most of the wildlife most sensitive to disturbance uses the refuge.”
Green Point is located at 3010 Maple St. in Saginaw.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

P&B's "White Christmas" warms up holiday season

Review by Janet I. Martineau
Pit and Balcony Community gave itself one of the best Christmas presents ever with its decision to hire New Yorker  Mark D. Lingenfelter to direct and choreograph (and we suspect play a major role in the costuming of) “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.”
The musical based on the 1954 classic movie starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye ran this weekend just ended and continues into next weekend at the Saginaw theater. Please, treat yourself into seeing it even if you are sick and tired of that film version.
We heap praise on Lingenfelter because, as we see it, when a show succeeds this well in ALL aspects, surely the director played a major, major role more than usual. And he  succeeded because he kept it simple, stupid.
The set is simple. The dance steps are simple. The costuming is simple. The performances are simple. And that is NOT an insult. That is praise. High praise. Too many community theater shows these days get overblown, taxing the actors, the set and costume builders, the theater finances and all at the expense of the show’s story. Lingenfelter knows how to keep it all looking great by not pushing beyond what is possible.
What Lingenfelter also did was cast some of the best singing voices around as well. Dan Taylor, so excellent as the lead in Pit’s “Full Monty,” is superb in the Bing Crosby role -- relaxed and comfortable in the acting part it and unleashing a gorgeous singing voice in the song and dance numbers.
Also superb all around are Scott Warnke in the Danny Kaye role, Brooke M. Peischke in the Rosemary Clooney role, Allison Murray in the Vera Ellen role, Laura Peil  as the inn’s busy-body receptionist with a Kate Smith singing voice, and Kevin Profitt in five character roles (chief among them the dullish inn handyman).
“Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun ” with Peischke, Murray and Peil is a standout vocal number as well as “Sisters” (both the female and male versions) and “Snow,” “Blue Skies” and the title song ensemble numbers.
Oh, and third grader Amelia Sutherland as the granddaughter of the inn’s owner holds her own too in the cast of 17. She’s a sneaky little scene stealer in her first community theater role  -- no surprise since mom, Jan Taylor Sutherland, conducts the excellent orchestra with dad Brian Sutherland playing trumpet.
To all those not mentioned specifically, what is great is that uniformly you are in character and we believe you are your character. They are that comfortable. It helps that their costumes and wigs set the time and place so well, but so too do they.
Unlike the movie, the stage version of this show has more Berlin songs in it and more dance routines. In fact, this cast is kept nimble of foot all over the place. There is ballroom style dancing, tap, semi soft-shoe, a kicking chorus line, moving with fans (as in “Sisters”). 
To give a hint of the costumes, in “I Love a Piano” the lead female dancer  is dressed in a black and white keyboard dress while the rest of the hoofer  are variations of black and white. 
The set is a stationary oversized box with bows, the smallish center of the stage a carved-out half-circle. In that half circle, Lingenfelter changes the scenery behind it in a half dozen or more layers -- a nightclub, a barn, the Vermont mountains with snow on them, the piano scene among them. 
The brief train scene is full of fun props -- old-time snow skis, a sled, old-time suitcases.
And sound, too often a crackling mess at P&B, has everyone coming through crystal clear.
There is also a clever ending -- one which, on Sunday night, was a little less amusing but clever anyway.

Saginaw Choral Society concert introduces a new song

Review by Janet I. Martineau
October’s concert-conducting candidate for the Saginaw Choral Society directorship sang a little solo.
On Saturday afternoon, at the Temple Theatre in downtown Saginaw, the final candidate  for the job composed a new Christmas ditty for the singers and arranged for a spiffy new arrangement of a Brian d’Arcy’s James' “Michigan Christmas.”
Gee, maybe we should just keep auditioning candidates since the ones in line are serving up fun extras galore.
Zebulon M. Highben, Saturday’s conductor candidate, was a stark contrast to October’s flashy, high-energy, comedic Glen Thomas Rideout. Highben was more laid back, toned-down, scholarly.
But, like Rideout, he delivered the goods in presenting a program that was refreshingly original (this one in a time of year which tends toward the overly traditional musical scores) and a chorale sounding superb.
So good luck, decision panel, because among the five candidates, there are these two guys and a couple of others all very worthy of the job.....and we have to chuckle that even the old MSU/Michigan rivalry comes into play here since Rideout is pursuing his doctorate at Michigan and Highben his doctorate at MSU!
Back to Saturday’s concert, titled “Christmas TIme Is Hear” (yes hear, not here. Pun intended).
“Welcome Yule,” Highben’s composition, opened the program and set its tone -- one of softer, more contemplative music on the whole and the unfamiliar. “Welcome Yule” is based on a 15th century carol text. It was sung a cappella and we hope it enters the Christmas songbook.
Yes there were three familiar John Rutter offerings and the famed “Do You Hear What in Hear” as well singalongs of the old tried and true. “African Noel,” a percussion driven piece, also is growing in stature and thus familiar.
But have most of us ever heard “Judea (A Virgin Unspotted),” “Sure on This Shining Night” (with a poem as its text), “This Christmastide” and “The Seven Joys of Christmas.” We’re betting not, and we loved the exploration of them all, and their performance by the singers.
Especially noteworthy was “The Seven Joys of Christmas” by the still-living  Kirke Mechem. Those seven joys (and thus seven movements) are of love, bells. Mary, children, the new year, dance and song. And they incorporate traditional carols from England, France, Japan, Germany, Burgundy and Spain, all accompanied by an excellent 13-member chamber orchestra.
This, to me, was the highlight of the afternoon -- a musical treat to savor and explore and decide if the music captured the joy it was portraying.
Also a standout was the Daniel J. Singer arrangement of Brian d’Arcy James’ “Michigan Christmas.” We’ve loved this song since James himself introduced it, but in this new setting somehow the thoughts of a homesick hometown boy living in New York City seemed even more poignant. Thank you Mr. Singer -- and hey, Michigan, how about adopting this thing as the state song.
Another bell ringer was the Ah Tempo! rendering of “Mary Did You Know?” This sextet of men from the chorale just keeps getting better and better, and this rendition was an emotional grabber.
Sadly, when they combined with the six Valley Gals ensemble on “Merry Christmas, Darling,” well, it just needed more rehearsal time and acting skills to carry it off.
Bravo also to Carl Angelo and his Saginaw Youth Chorale, sounding much much improved and adding humor with the animal noises (via instruments) in the charming “Chrissimas Day.”
Highben divided his selections into themes: “A Time of Hope,” “A Time of Cheer,” “A Time of Joy” and “A Time of Peace.” Inventive. We liked it. Nice job.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Midland's "Snow Queen" a visual delight

Review by Janet I. Martineau
MIDLAND -- Forget about vision of sugarplums dancing in our heads this time of year. Those venturing out this weekend  to see the Peanut Gallery production of “The Snow Queen” at the Midland Center for the Arts will forever have visions of singing flowers, a princess with hair piled a mile high, and snow warriors with frizzy white hair and suits fashioned out of fencing jackets.
And that’s to name just a few of the standouts  in this imaginative production of an old Hans Christian Andersen Scandinavian fairy tale about good vs. evil. There also is a human crow with an outfit to die for, lush projections of falling snow and falling leaves as well as the northern lights flickering, a couple of performances that are absolute show stoppers, a human river which comes up out of the stage floor, and a Snow Queen whose persona and singing voice is etherial and magical.
Remarkable, given the fact that the majority of the 36-member cast is kids -- from grade school into high school, many of them playing two roles. Bravo to co-directors Kristiina Pilnik and Denyse Clayton for marshaling (and controlling)  the forces in one of the most stunning-looking and complicated shows in the history of the center -- which includes the main stage adult productions with we assume bigger budgets and more seasoned casts.
So that said, let’s get the negatives out of the way. This musical adaptation by Cheryl Kemeny is a butt buster, running nearly three hours! This hardly a children’s show makes. It is in dire need of editing down, and because of that drags all over the place.
There also are a few too many pregnant pauses in the flow of the show -- as in setting up to do a song the way we now watch figure skaters setting up to do a difficult leap and twist. Its mere logistics get in the way of that natural flow which is more engaging to a performance. The fog effects get a little thick too.
And, yes, some of the performances struggle.
But back to the positives.
Costume designer Deana Danner is pure genius and creativity. Think “Narnia,” “Lion King” and “Princess and the Pea” with embellishments. Since we were told all these costumes were locally made, the costume crew must be exhausted and blind. Bravo to the hair and makeup teams as well.
Set designer Wendi Johnson likewise  is genius and creativity with the forest of white wooden trees, an ice rink floor, the two “caves.” And choreographer Kelli Jolly moves the cast well, keeping the dance moves simple but effective.
With the performances, it’s Emma Clayton vs Michelle Wallace when it comes to scene stealers.
Clayton, a high school sophomore, is cast as the snotty and snooty Princess Egomania and Wallace, an adult, as the high strung and devious Garden Woman who oversees death.
Every fiber of Clayton’s being is put into the comedic Princess Egomania -- the way she says her words, her body English, her glances. She also gets a lovely operatic turn with her showcase song. Couple that with her outlandish costume and she delights totally, with her great lady-in-waiting cohorts just adding to the fun.
Wallace nearly matches Clayton’s wattage, watering her limp human flowers, killing off the invading human roses, trying lure the young heroine into her trap, suffering a meltdown or two, with a showcase song of her own and a flowery costume from head to toe.
Other fine performances are delivered by Grace Anderson as the heroine  Gerta, Isobel Futter as the elegant  Snow Queen, Reagan Glenn in all three of her parts (Snow Ballerina, Iris and and Finland Woman), Aidan Montgomery as Kai (lovely young singing voice), and the entire herd of hovering Goblins.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"A Christmas Carol" told radio theater style at SVSU

by Janet I. Martineau/Review
Ahhhh, the good old days of live radio theater.
When a sexy, gum-chewing, spotlight-hogging hussy was cast to play Tiny Tim of “A Christmas Carol” fame -- and the little tyke’s sister too.
Wait. That’s what happened just this Thursday night, in the year 2010, at Saginaw Valley State University when a live radio recreation of the Charles Dickens tale opened a short three-day run. 
Find the time to treat yourself to this hour-long romp. It is nostalgia at its best in a day and age when live television theater is a rarity let alone live radio theater. SVSU faculty members Ric Roberts and David Rzeszutek teamed up on the script -- adapting both the 1843 Dickens story and the famed 1939 radio broadcast of it with Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge and Orson Welles as the narrator.
It’s all there. The lit On Air and Applause signs. The old-time microphones and clothing attire on the cast of 15. The unlikely casting decisions in a day and age when visuals were not an issue, with the players casually drinking coffee, snoozing and vamping when seated and not saying their lines. The sound effects duo of Ashley Evans and Craig Wyse kept busy rattling the chains of Marley, clinking the glasses at a party and closing doors.
And professors Roberts and Rzeszutek joining their students on stage as the radio announcers for pretend-WSVU’s broadcast of the Christmas classic. Roberts even spent some time researching old Life magazines to write their commercials for Pall Mall cigarettes, the Kodak Brownie priced at $2 and the Hoover vacuum -- as well as a surprise commercial hitting closer to home.
The funny (and fun) visuals find Amanda Mueller getting a case of the vapors and shaking the hands of other cast members as her character prepares to portray the Ghost of Christmas Past ... siren Danielle Schoney as the Crachit kids and vying for the best spot  in a shoving match with the actress (Stephanie Wohlfeil) playing her mother .... David Ryan as Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past dutifully using a  pencil to check off each set of lines on his script after he speaks them.
Rusty Myers, straight from a dynamic performance as Stanley in SVSU’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” is cast as Scrooge and carries the lion’s share of lines with the proper amount of gruffness. He does less of the off-microphone antics than the rest of the cast but, then, he is rarely not speaking. Chad Baker is near-perfect as the nervous Bob Crachit.
If there is a complaint, it is that in several places the seated cast members sing Christmas carols as a backdrop for the action. Softer, please, softer. You are drowning out the spoken lines.

Roberts said the plans are to do a Christmas classic live radio theater adaptation for at least the next couple of years, with “It’s a Wonderful Life” slated for 2011. He sought to get a local radio station to actually air one of this year’s performances, to no avail sadly.
But bravo for the concept of finding a new (or is that renewed) way of telling really old warhorses. It is  also likely that most Americans alive today have no concept of what live radio theater was like, and this clues them in on a great piece of history -- and doing it presents a few unusual challenges to the school’s theater students in that they are playing both their characters and their character’s characters at the same time, as well as having to act while holding and reading from a script.
It’s a win-win for those on stage as well as in the audience. And at the end, out in the lobby, the cast members hand out candy canes to all the good little boys and girls who attended.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Saginaw Bay Symphony goes on two sleigh rides

“Sleigh Ride” followed by “Sleigh Ride.”
That was the fun piece of programming which began the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra’s near-capacity “A Classical Christmas” concert Tuesday night at the Temple -- and newly hired maestro Brett Mitchell’s first turn at the annual event in downtown Saginaw.
The first “Sleigh Ride’ was the familiar Leroy Anderson pops one, with the orchestra creating the sound of a cracking whip and a horse whiny. It was, as is tradition, played with great gusto.
Mitchell then explained there are many “Sleigh Ride” compositions in the world of music. Even Mozart and his dad wrote ones. So Mitchell dusted off a rarely heard and more pastoral one composed by Frederick Delius, Soft, a bit romantic in the middle, wintery woodsy. Lushly played.
Causing us to think, hmmmm, a whole concert someday of just “Sleigh Rides” throughout history. Probably not, but it is an intriguing thought.
Although the chatty Mitchell labeled his concert “A Classical Christmas” it was more classical light, and had plenty of pops with the playing of music from the theater and movies -- as in “The Sound of Music” and “Home Alone.” And there was that old Christmas warhorse, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.”
Also familiar was the more classical, and fantastic, Fantasia on “Greensleeves” by Vaughan Williams, “March of the Toys” from Victor Herbert’s operetta “Babes in Toyland” and Anderson’s singalong “A Christmas Festival.”
But another “new” and fun mix into the evening was contemporary composer Samuel Barber’s take on “Silent Night” -- which found different instruments of the orchestra playing the familiar theme while the orchestra as a whole did its Barber thing. Great piece. And it left us wanting more of the classical in the classical theme as well as “new” takes on the old, the latter of which we have been treated to in the previous Yuletide concerts conducted by Gregory Largent.
Also a disappointment was the lack of much to do for the greatly diminished-in-size SBSO All-Star Honors Chorus from area high schools. They sang only on the “Home Alone” medley, often overpowered by the orchestra. This seemed less a community Christmas concert than in the past and just a little less fun.
That said, however, it was an enjoyable one and filled with the same superb orchestral sound Mitchell achieved in his first concert this past fall.
In the “Nutcracker” the musicians wildly sand flamboyantly danced the “Russian Dance” and then did an about turn with the dreamy and mellow “Arabian Dance,” Harpist Margot Hayward shone throughout the evening in the “Greensleeves,” “Waltz of the Flowers” from “Nutcracker” and one of the “Home Alone” entries. Other orchestral standouts were the horns, the flutes, the strings, the celeste.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Green Point offers "trip" to Alaska, Yukon

There were a few times, says Phil Stephens, he slept with a hatchet by his side up there in the wilderness of Alaska and the Yukon.
“It was just in case a bear snuck up on us.  It allowed me to sleep more easily, though I suspect it wouldn’t have helped much with a grizzly.”
At least he could have, perhaps, seen it coming “because the lack darkness in the northern Yukon is a wonderment in the summer.”
Stephens, a senior naturalist at Midland’s Chippewa Nature Center as well as an accomplished photographer, closes out the 2010 “Nurturing Nature” series on Wednesday, Dec. 1, with a picturesque program titled “Spectacular Alaska and the Yukon.”
The evening begins at 7 p.m. at the Green Point Environmental Learning Center,  2010 Maple in Saginaw. Admission is free to members of the Friends of the Shiawassee National Wildlife refuge; $2 at the door for others.
Stephens is no stranger to the area. He scouted it for a possible two-week Chippewa Nature Center trip, which did not occur, and then he and his family spent seven weeks driving the 10,500 miles there and back from Midland.
He ranks Alaska and Yukon as one of the most spectacular of the many places he has has roamed  “because of the vastness, remoteness and diversity of their natural areas which include not only mountains but arctic tundra, glaciers, seascapes and lots of wildlife.” 
The Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and Canada are also very spectacular, he says, though not as diverse and are more crowded.  “However, the Rockies and Sierras have easy-to-navigate trail systems, which are easier for a family to explore than the ‘routes. that are poor cousins to trails in the far north.”
So which is more spectacular -- Alaska, our largest state, or the Yukon, which is part of Canada?
“Both have some areas of spectacularly big mountains which are wonderful. However, on the Dempster Highway in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, we had a wonderful sense that we were on a sparsely-populated corridor the width of our gravel road that was bordered by true wilderness stretching for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from us.  The sense of isolation there was awesome.”
And what might be the biggest misconception people have about Alaska and the Yukon?
“It’s not all mountains.  There are many large areas that are gently-rolling or even very flat.  There’s even a farming area north of Anchorage.”