Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Midland's Chippewa Nature Center hosting first-of-its-kind conference

by Janet I. Martineau
Sixty preschool teachers and administrators  from around the nation are camping out at Midland’s Chippewa Nature Center this Wednesday and Thursday.
Preschoolers at Chippewa Nature Center
Not literally -- they are housed at the upscale H Hotel in the city’s downtown.
But  over their two days they will settle in at Chippewa, 400 S. Badour, to hear two keynote speakers, pick and choose from nearly 25 breakout sessions, view a film,  participate in a scavenger hunt, and take a wagon ride to Chippewa’s Homestead Farm for a barbeque in what is billed as the nation’s first Nature-Based Preschool Conference.
“We have teachers and administrators coming from Vermont, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Georgia and Ohio as well as Michigan,” says Rachel A. Larimore, the director of education at Chippewa.
“As best we know there are just 20 to 30 nature-based preschools in the United States at present. We are still new, still developing and growing, and we do not quite fit in at early childhood conferences or at conferences for nature centers. We are a hybrid of the two, and we need to decide how do we define ourselves.”
So, she says, Chippewa Nature Center got the ball rolling and created  what will become an annual conference for nature-based preschools. “We hope it will start the building of a network -- the people attending will meet people they can call when they have questions on how to deal with issues that come up.
“It also will allow us to become more organized, to build an association and begin regular communication with each other.”
And perhaps most important of all, Larimore says, “It will establish the fact we are a profession and have established best practices.”
Chippewa opened its nature-based preschool five years ago, and even constructed a special 5,000-square-foot building to house its students. But the 60 visitors will only briefly visit that facility since it is in use.
Instead, they will meet in the classrooms at the adjacent Visitor Center, where Larimore and her colleagues have scheduled an impressive list of hour-long  breakout sessions. Among them are “Terrible to Terrific Transitions,” “Exploring Puppets,” “Augmenting Your Site for Better Nature Play,” “Ideas for Great Group Excursions,”  “Nature and the Brain,” “Creating Nature Journals With Children,” “Seasonal Activity Ideas” and “Working With Urban Centers.”

Leading the sessions are teachers and administrators not only from Chippewa Nature Center but also from the participating nature centers.

“We have the breakout sessions divided between two styles,” says Larimore. “One is traditional -- one or two presenters do the whole program. And the others are sharing sessions -- a presenter does a short overview and then facilitates a group discussion.”
The movie on tap is “Mother Nature’s Child,” which discusses the need for nature in the lives of children.
And the two keynote speakers are Patti Bailie, the director of Wisconsin’s Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool, on “Best Practices for Nature-based Preschools,” and Jim Gill, a musician and author, on “Music Play for ALL Young Children.” Next year’s conference will take place at Schlitz.
Larimore was instrumental in the creation of Chippewa’s nature preschool, which so far has served more than 200 youngsters. She also authored the 93-page  book “Establishing a Nature-Based Preschool,” published by the National Association of Interpretation.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Pit and Balcony's "Sweeney Todd" a muddled mess

review by Janet I. Martineau
OK, first a word to the cast of “Sweeney Todd” at Saginaw’s Pit and Balcony Community Theatre. This review is not about you. You all did the very best you could under the circumstances, and your singing voices were stellar.
But your director, Michael Walling...WHAT was he thinking that resulted in turning this musical about madness into a muddled mess.
We LOVED Walling’s  “Jesus Christ Superstar” interpretation that was unique and different. It succeeded, in our mind. But with “Sweeney,” which he labeled in a newspaper story as a stylized version purists might not like, yikes.
In its frantic race to get to the end there was no time allowed for nuances and inflections from the cast and thus no emotion. The majority of songs were sung with such a vicious rapidity and over-the-top volume that the words were unintelligible. (I had to explain the story to the woman sitting next to me.) The sound system, at least on opening night Friday, sounded like an echo transmission from outer space.
Then there was the set. What the heck was it trying to say. Those HUGE gears at the back were distracting and tended to swallow up the people in front of them. The half dozen noisily moving towers...toward the end we thought we would scream if the cast moved them one more time in an attempt to create an imaginary scene. And we did scream (internally) when during Daniel Taylor’s singing of the lovely ballad “Johanna,” one of the few quiet numbers, those towers started moving to set up the next scene. NEVER upstage an actor with a set piece.
Red wooden chairs.....really, do people routinely stand on chairs to sing...made us giggle. The little fog machine that couldn’t....TURN IT OFF. When the barber killed his victims and then each of them proceeded to stand up, take his or her chair, and walk off the stage...talk about destroying a moment. If the orchestra nearly outnumbers the cast count....well, guess who will win.
And why was it some of the cast members had British accents (it is set in England) but others not a hint?
It was like Walling was saying “Sweeney Todd” is a dumb and horrible show and I am going to dis it; gonna turn it into a cartoon; gonna rob it of any humanity (and it DOES have humanity amid the carnage). If this is what stylized means, that a show is robbed of its humanity and any sense of detailing, then yuck.
But back to the cast.
Laura Peil somehow managed to triumph over most all of that in her lively performance as Mrs. Lovett, who turns the revengeful barber’s victims into best-selling meat pies. She speaks and sings with enough diction to save some of the play and displays at least some hint of being a human (albeit a sinister one).
Tony Serra in the lead role has a baritone voice to die for, and uses it well. But in the director’s apparent rush of this thing, his Sweeney Todd lacks any depth of character.
As for the rest of the cast, bravo for braving the super difficult Stephen Sondheim score. We can tell from the hints that are there, you did conquer its complexities, We also know most of you from other plays and what you are capable of as actors. You just got pushed under the speeding bus on this show.
And it could have been worse. We saw a “Sweeney Todd” in Detroit that had the cast members also the orchestra members -- each playing an instrument along with having to act and sing. What is it about this musical that makes directors want to mess with it?
We’ve also seen two more traditional productions...and to that we say, sometimes being a bit of a purist might be wiser.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Bay City Players tickle funnybone in "Drowsy Chaperone"

review by Janet I. Martineau
If ever, IF EVER, IF EVER a musical theater role was tailor made for Leeds Bird, it is as the Man in Chair (the narrator) of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” playing through Sunday at the Bay City Players.
And the long-time Bay City actor/director, who is a musical theater devotee and has even written co-written couple of them, milks it for every single movement and line inflection in a performance for the record books in any theater, not just community theater.
But he has company in this production -- and lots of it.
Michael Wisniewski directs a dream team to near perfection -- from the cast to the choreographer to the costumers to the orchestra. This is a “don’t miss” show. The cast is an assemble of over-the-top characters underplayed beautifully. The dance routines are exciting -- especially a tap routine by two men that ends up with one on roller skates and blindfolded. And the colorful period costuming....well it must have tapped the budget for the next decade.
Now, how to explain “Chaperone” since it is fairly new. In it a depressed curmudgeon (Bird) clad in a bathrobe grumps to the audience about how musical theater ain’t what it used to be. In the process he hauls out a 33 rpm record (remember those)  of a vintage and favorite show (“The Drowsy Chaperone,” from 1928), hugs it fondly, remarks how it is a two-record issue....and then proceeds to put it on his record player for us to hear.
And as it plays the show comes to life on the stage -- with Bird’s narrator keeping up a constant HILARIOUSLY droll commentary. He is a critic, a gossip, an historian all rolled into one -- passing judgement on a bad routine and an even worse song, and best of all informing dishing the dirt on the show’s actors as well as what happened to some of them in their later years. A flick of the wrist, a darting of the eyes, an inflection in the voice, a shifting of the body -- Bird reels us in from the get go.
Written by a quartet of folks (two on the music and lyrics and two on the script), it helps that “The Drowsy Chaperone” is one of the most fun musical theater scripts in years --  word play, sight gags, nutty characters, a crafty melding of contemporary life and the 1920s, and a warm-hearted spoofing of musical theater then and now.
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT...Keep in mind, Man in Chair is playing his 33 album for us. So, for those who remember 33 records, what do you think occurs twice? Once when just two people are on stage in a scene but the second time during a full-blown production number? THE RECORD GETS STUCK. I damn near had to leave, I got such a case of the giggles watching the actors repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat their words and movements.
We won’t spoil the other brilliances in the show but you can anticipate another A1 one  when Man in the Chair, who hate intermissions so we don’t get one,  goes off stage to take a pee and then returns.....and when the two pastry chefs (who are really gangsters) engage in some old groaners word play.
The 21-member cast is so comfortable in its acting, singing and dancing that the show becomes magically real. 
Director Wisniewski is graced with an abundance of top-notch singing voices and tap dancer supremes in David Bowden and Trevor Keyes. And while we cannot possibly name every cast member, we loved in particular the acting chops of Tezra Armstrong as the boozy title character, Dale Bills as the Latin lover Aldolpho (cliches abound and 
this show is NOT politically correct, praise be), Samantha Corrion on the tottery Mrs, Tottendale, Amanda Glashauser at the dim-witted Kitty and Steve Moelter as the long-suffering Underling.
Oh gosh, there are so many other sight gags we’d like to share, witty lines, cool costume gimmicks, an airplane scene, references to other musicals....but you need to discover them for yourself.
It has been a marvelous community theater season in Saginaw, Midland and Bay City, and to it “The Drowsy Chaperone” soars.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Saginaw pioneer comes to life during special program

by Janet I. Martineau
Kyle Bagnall as Ephraim Williams
A Saginaw pioneer comes to costumed, first-person life on Wednesday, May 2, when the Nurturing Nature series presents “Ephraim Williams, Pioneer Fur Trader.”
“When Ephraim and his brother, Gardner, lived in Saginaw, they were very involved with the growing town,” says Kyle Bagnall, who assumes the persona of Ephraim during the 7 p.m. program at the Green Point Environmental Learning Center, 3010 Maple.
“Ephraim was the first clerk of Saginaw Township, the first postmaster of Saginaw and building superintendent for the first Saginaw County Courthouse. His daughter, Julia, was one of the first white children born in Saginaw. His brother was the first supervisor of Saginaw Township and was elected the first mayor of Saginaw in 1857. And 1834, the Williams family built the first sawmill in the Saginaw Valley.”
And that does not even include the earlier family history connected to the War of 1812, which marks its 200th anniversary this year.
Thee manager of historical programs at Midland’s Chippewa Nature Center, Bagnall is no stranger to the Nurturing Nature series. He has presented three living history programs as Michigan explorer Bela Hubbard in various phases of his life.
He was intrigued to do the same with Williams, Bagnall says, “because of his fascinating life story at the end of the Michigan fur trade era and his involvement in the earliest era of settlement in the Saginaw Valley. This is one of my favorite periods of Michigan history, and I can’t think of a more fascinating family to bring it to life.”
Bagnall researched his script through Williams family contributions to the “Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections.” Published between 1876-1929, this 40-volume collection is a vast repository of pioneer reminiscences, biographical sketches,  memorials, and the proceedings of local pioneer societies.
As the story goes, Ephraim was born in Concord, Mass., in 1802. His father opened a trading post in Detroit in 1808,  and his ship was captured by the British at Mackinac Island during the War of 1812. The entire Williams family moved to Detroit in 1815 -- when Ephraim was 13, the oldest of eight children.
Ephraim and his brother arrived in Saginaw in 1828, as agents of the American Fur Company. They were responsible for the company’s trade and dealings with Native Americans for the entire Saginaw Valley, including posts at Midland and Sebewaing and along the Cass and AuSable Rivers. 
“During this program, I portray Ephraim in the year 1840, as he is closing up fur trading in the Saginaw Valley,” says Bagnall.  “My historical dress consists of reproductions from the period, typical for a fur trader in the Great Lakes region. I also use a variety of furs, an 1823 map reproduction, a knife, tomahawk, and other typical trade goods of the period.”
Ephraim eventually moved to Flint and was elected mayor in 1861.  He died in Flint 1890, at age 89.

Nurturing Nature is co-sponsored by the Friends of the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, Admission is $2 at the door.