Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra goes jazzy and adds an art exhibition too

Kellie Schneider's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" illustration

Review by Janet I. Martineau

It was an embarrassment of "Nutcracker" riches Tuesday night when the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra presented  its annual Christmas concert at the Temple Theatre.

And not all of them involved music.

In fact, eight of them were gorgeously and whimsically visual.

On paper, maestro Brett Mitchell's program for the night looked, well, um, kinda pedestrian. Enter Saginaw-born artist Kellie Schneider, jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's creativity, elegant and colorful staging, tuned bells, and orchestra members shining in an unusual number of solo samplings.

Now, how to boil it all down in a few words.

To enhance the playing of that old warhorse, Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite," Mitchell commissioned Schneider, now living in Minnesota, to create an illustration to project overhead for each of its eight segments -- among them the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the ethic dances, the dance of the reed pipes, and the waltz of the flowers.

The renderings were utterly charming and magical, with a nature-linked recurring image of trees or tree branches in most of them, snow flakes falling, an oversized red Chinese fan in one and a castle-like background in another, eye-pleasing light and shadow plays, childlike and playful people in them yet sophisticated too.

Sometimes we sorta tuned out the music being played, just to wallow in the examination  of the art....but not for long as we realized the orchestra was beautifully playing the score.

And the came "Nutcracker" two -- the Ellington/Strayhorn five-segment jazz take on Tchaikovsky's classical fare. With its segments renamed  "Toot Toot Tootie Toot," "Sugar Rum Cherry" and "Peanut Brittle Brigade," for three.

Oh my goodness what fun, with the cherry one via sugar plum soooo smooth and sultry and HOT. And the orchestra proved it can masquerade as one mean jazz-playing machine with strings attached.

Between these two pieces, goosebumpy solo segments were delivered by Margot Box on harp, Catherine McMichael on celeste, John Nichol on sax, Kennen White on clarinet, John Hill on percussion, Andrew Mitchell on trombone, Gregg Emerson Powell on bass, and  Mark Flegg on trumpet.   

The tuned bells were used in Mozart's "Sleigh Ride," and created we must say a worthy  unusual sound, different from regular run-of-the-mill sleigh bells. LOVED, LOVED the playing of the overture to Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" -- an operetta we adore and which is staged way too rarely. And McMichael on piano and a combo gave a jazz feel to the opening of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" -- part of Mitchell's inventive programming that offered a classical first half and a jazz second half.

The staging echoed the classical/jazz division with traditional Christmas trees in the first half to which was added the trunks of palm trees in the second, with the lighting more cool in the first half and hotter in the second.

And Mitchell was in a humorous mood which served the night well, even when a technical snafu surfaced and ended with him exclaiming, rightfully, "Mercy!"

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bay City Players production of "Les Miserables" shines in ensemble numbers

 From left, Laurel Hammis, Denyse Clayton, David Clayton, Dan Taylor

Matt Schramm, Carly Peil

Review by Janet I. Martineau
Photos by Kunio Ouellette

"Les Miserables" No. 1 is up and running in the Tri-City community theater realm.

It opened Thursday night at the Bay City Players....and in the near-capacity audience was a contingent of  creatives from the  Midland Center for the Arts, where "Les Miz" is scheduled to open in late March. Included among them the director and the music conductor.

Hmmmmm....being supportive or running reconnaissance? Or maybe just there to see the Midlanders who were in the cast.

Whatever the case, we wonder if they thought it was a mixed bag, as I did.

There were, to be sure, superb moments in this version directed by Mike Wisniewski with music direction by Sara Taylor. 

First and foremost the chorus/ensemble work was outstanding. It was there where some  the best singing AND acting surfaced. The factory workers, the street whores, the beggars, the inn customers , in particular the student revolutionaries....their faces were full of emotion, their body English rang true, their singing voices were rich in mini-solos and full ensemble.

With them the production soared.

And it soared with several of the supporting roles.

David Clayton and Denyse Clayton, married in real life, tore up the place as the ribald, uncouth and greedy innkeepers. Granted this is a role that normally steals segments of the show. But these two, acting pros that they are, were diction perfect, full of expressions and movement eye candy, acting as if this awful behavior is second nature to them, totally comfortable in their roles.

So too was...and this was a surprise since he is a newcomer to us...Matt Schramm as Marius, the leader of the student revolutionaries. Schramm, a Presbyterian minister by occupation, has a singing voice to absolutely die for and an equally impressive acting range.

Faced with depicting about every emotion known to man, Schramm delivered all of them equally, as if he were really living the part. His "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" solo was heartbreaking in its raw intensity.

Shawn Penning, a 9th grader, served up a performance beyond his years as the cocky street urchin who joins the revolutionaries. And young Laurel Hammis (no grade or age given) had the right vulnerability as young Cosette down pat and sang with excellent clarity.

Which leaves us the leads -- Dan Taylor as Jean Valjean, Dale Bills as Javert, Jennifer Kennedy as Fantine, Carly Peil as Eponine and Kalie Schnabel as the adult Cosette.

None of them is 100 percent there yet. Close, most of them, but not quite there. Some sang at the full percentage, but were not settled into their characters lock, stock and strong acting  barrel (Taylor for one, who hit killer notes throughout). Others were acting at full throttle but there were some singing issues (Peil among them, whose Eponine was spot on but in "On My Own" she undersang  it).

This is not to say their performances were bad. In no way were they bad. It's just that they can be better ...and we say that knowing this musical is a minefield.

Other plusses: Sara Taylor and musicians were strong throughout. Choreographer Holly Bills moved this massive cast well and she and the director created attractive tableaus.

Other negatives: The set....the decision to downplay the set and make it minimalist, well, we think it went a little too far in that aspect. The Javert suicide scene did not work. Some of the costuming was questionable. And a couple of sound system issues destroyed moods.

In the final analysis, as the show progresses through its run we suspect the majority of the negatives will turn positive.
One of the excellent ensemble groups: the street whores

Busy sound effects man propels SVSU's annual radio play production

review by janet i. martineau
photo courtesy of SVSU

So, just for the fun of it, I decided to count how many cues the sound effects man had to contend with Wednesday night when Saginaw Valley State University opened its short run of the classic "Miracle on 34th Street," done in 1940s radio play style.

69 cues, people. In one hour. Door opening and closing. Courtroom gavel. Phone ringing and receiver  slammed down. Feet walking and newspapers rustling. A punch in the snout and photoflashes. Dinner dishes rattling. Chimes. Endless bags of mail going plop. And more.

Yep, no doubt about it Blake Mazur  was the busiest of the cast members In this fourth annual SVSU production of a 1940s radio show -- keeping  on task while his character continually poured libations from a flask and sometimes mouthed or mimed  the action taking place before him.

Great fun, these mock radio shows, as the casts  present a show within a  show -- seriously acting their parts in the play's storyline and engaging in all sorts of out-of-character shenanigans since with radio shows the audience never were able to see what the actors were doing so they could do just about anything.

Thus we had doddering Lexee Longwell and extremely extremely nervous Dakotah  Myers who were just fine when they stood up at the microphone as their characters. Others munched on snacks, drank pop, talked silently among themselves.

17 students were involved in this production, some playing just one role and others two or three roles. It never fails to amuse when a full-bodied adult stands up to the microphone and out comes a squeaky little child voice. Co-directors/play adapters  Ric Roberts and Dave Rzeszutek  kept all 17 busy always doing something somewhere somehow.

The commercials are always fun in these productions. This year there was the annual tribute to downtown Saginaw's Savoy restaurant,  of course. But also advertised was 7-Up, Campbell's soup, and the long-gone  Morley Brothers in downtown Saginaw.

The story line had the owners of Macy's and Gimbels  in New York City  doing battle, plenty of word play, and parts for the co-directors  as well. Adding dramatic emphasis was Kevin Simons on organ.

And 1940s period dress was the icing on the cake.

When we say short run, "Miracle" is presented only twice. The second performance is at 7:30pm Thursday, Dec. 5.