Tongues in Trees*: Ignorance is not bliss – a new appreciati​on for Ann Arbor’s Summer Festival

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Ignorance is Not Bliss

When Pat and Marjorie Lesko approached me after my recent book-reading at fabulous local treasure Bookbound and asked if I would like to be a regular contributor in their pages, I was thrilled.

[Alas, this is likely the last contribution I shall make. Another story for another day.]

However, their movie review slot was already taken. (Phooey! but if you want to read my views on popcorn epics, please check out my blog at www.reelroyreviews.com…oh, right, you’re already here!) So they said to me, “How about culture? You’re a theatre guy. You must love to write about culture. I mean, this is Ann Arbor!”

“You got it!” I sheepishly replied, fearful to reveal my true colors as a pop maven who prefers “The Harlem Shake” over Shakespeare, The Mighty Thor over Jane Austen, and Kathy Griffin over the ballet.

[You can read my first contribution to The Ann Arbor Independent about Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre by clicking here.]

Pat, ever the good journalist, could see right through my ruse. “You haven’t gone to anything here, have you? No festivals, no art installations, no opera?” The jig was up. I suspected that my seven-year-successful-dodge of anything of artistic substance was about to come to a crashing halt.

Her next comment surprised me even more: “Good! Then you’re a blank slate. Write about that!” And like rat-a-tat Rosalind Russell from screwball classic His Girl Friday, she gave me a quick “Off you go!” and clicked off the receiver.

So … here I go. May as well start at the top … Top of the Park, that is.

Entering its 31st season, Ann Arbor’s famed Summer Festival was founded in 1984, and Top of the Park, the free outdoor cornucopia of movies and concerts and activities is arguably the fest’s most famous component. Of course, the festival is so much more, running from June 13 to July 6 with many ticketed offerings sprinkled about Ann Arbor, in addition to the outdoor events. (You’ve already read about Lily Tomlin’s opening weekend concert in The Ann Arbor Independent – I wonder if Pat would let me do those interviews in the future? Hmmm. I better be a good kid!)

If you want to find yourself overwhelmed, just check out the festival’s comprehensive website at www.a2sf.org – talk about sensory overload.

Ann Arbor Summer FestivalIf I have any (feeble) defense to offer for our household’s neglect of this Ann Arbor mainstay, it may be that, for a Tree Town neophyte, all of this activity can shut down a person’s central cortex. If you don’t know where to start or even how to navigate the various locations and parking challenges therein, you might be tempted to just to head to the Rave or Quality and watch the latest Channing Tatum/Michael Bay/Pixar offerings with their predictable start times, easy access, and pre-digested storylines.

However, the evil geniuses at the festival must have anticipated this quibble, and they have introduced a mobile app (free!) that can be your pocket guide to all things Fest related. Having done a quick spin through the app, they nailed it. It’s easily searchable, responsive, social, interactive and with just the right amount of content to help you have a good time. Kudos!

So, now that I have no excuses, I turn to the people who may shake their heads in shame at my ignorance but love me anyway – my long-time Washtenaw County-based pals – for some much-needed guidance and advice. (I won’t divulge who, but I did have one comrade-in-arms who emailed, “I have never been there [Summer Fest] either. Don’t tell anyone!”)

Rebecca Hardin, associate professor at U of M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (not to mention someone who has suffered playing my spouse in The Penny Seats’ production of What Corbin Knew and helps host the fabulous radio show It’s Hot in Here on WCBN, Friday from 12-1 pm), offers,  “Highlights of past summer festivals, for me, include the acrobats from Australia towering over assembled crowds on enormous stilts, swaying among the roofs of Rackham, the Michigan League, and the Alumni Center, in brightly colored clothes. I also loved the eruption of local talent ‘from the ground up’ during a Bollywood flash mob dance moment…just look for ‘Bollywood flash mob connects communities’ on YouTube. Nothing compares to the chance to see local bands like Hullabaloo, eat local brands like Sylvio’s Organic Pizza, and just be, together with so many other Ann Arborites, grateful for the beautiful evenings.”

Clearly, Rebecca’s comments get to the heart of what makes Ann Arbor – and any of its various activities like Summer Fest – so special: spontaneity, creativity, involvement. And what a wealth of opportunities there are.

Beth Kennedy, Ann Arbor teacher and blogger (check out her witty ididnthavemyglasseson.com for a nostalgic yet fresh look at life in Michigan), concurs, “I love the music, people of all ages getting up to dance together, uninhibited,  feeling the rhythm. I love that they moved it from ‘top of the park’ on top of the parking structure down to street level and never went back up to the cement wasteland. That change alone puts people in a very festive and friendly mood. The beer garden is nice … I have never seen anyone unruly while there … a good thing. Most events are free, except for a few headliners. As a teacher, I adore that they have had the children’s bands perform here, giving them a friendly open space to play, with a receptive audience. I do wish there were more food stand choices, but those seem to be growing each year. Free movies at dark are great with classics and cult films. I will add that family ones are challenging because most kids are asleep by that time but that is just a consequence of Daylight Savings Time, alas!”

The challenges of kids, movies, and late sunsets seem to be a common refrain.

Ian Reed Twiss, an Ann Arbor resident and the pastor at Saline’s Holy Faith Church, remarks, “When the weather’s good, Summer Fest is a lot of fun to hang out and just listen to music. They have had some great high-wire and circus-type acts out on the green as well.  When we were childless, we used to go for the outdoor movies too, but haven’t done THAT in a while. We haven’t participated in any of the ticketed items at, say, The Power Center, but the offerings look great.” (As an aside, Ian mentioned another event to pass along. Summer is a month of fun but it can also be a great time to re-establish community. “et al,” a group aiming to create an inclusive and affirming environment for LGBT individuals and families in the Saline community through education and legislative advocacy and support, hosted a Gay Pride event on June 20, at Mill Pond Park in Saline.  It was a meet-and-greet, and local political leaders attended. It was co-sponsored by the Saline High Gay Alliance “Spectrum” and Diversity Circle. Thanks, Ian!)

Top of the Park definitely is the gateway for most attendees to Summer Fest’s offerings overall. One downside is that there seems to be some disconnect between the ticketed fare and what people commonly think of when they hear the words “Ann Arbor Summer Festival.”

Rebecca Biber, local music instructor, pianist, and conductor, remarked, “Is that where they have Top of the Park?  I have enjoyed an outdoor movie on occasion, because there is beer for the adults and the audience tends to have good camaraderie, yell out lines, and so on.  And some of the local bands are good.  Actually, this month on my birthday, the Fest is featuring two bands I have been meaning to see for years: The Crane Wives and the Ragbirds.  If you are up for some on-site research, I would love to drag you along.”

[Note: I did attend and it was fabulous!]

Well, look at that? My Summer Fest dance card is starting to fill up.

Linda Nyrkkanen, founder (and baker) at Flour Lab, Inc. (if you see her at the farmer’s market in Kerrytown, you must buy her cookies, eat immediately, and then buy some more), echoes Rebecca’s perspective, “I must confess that I am not a regular attender either, although I have been to a few of the free movies at Top of the Park.  The first one was the Wizard of Oz back when I was in college, and it was pretty magical seeing my favorite childhood movie under the stars with my friends. And fast forward to current times – we saw E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial a few years ago with our friends Sean and Rachel.  So fun! I don’t know if this helps you or not, but just wanted to share my limited experience.  I know the musical performances are great too, but it’s the outdoor movies that hold the most memories for me.  I think you and John should definitely try to catch one this year.”

Now that I have my marching orders, keep an eye out – you may just see us wandering about, iPhones in hand, scrolling through the many offerings, looking bedraggled, possibly dehydrated, but with big smiles on our faces as we’ve finally immersed ourselves in one of Ann Arbor’s signature events: “The Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s mission is to present a world-class celebration of arts and entertainment that enriches the cultural, economic, and social vitality of the region.” Well, all right – sounds good to me! See you next fall, Channing Tatum!

[P.S. Wonder what the heck “Tongues in Trees” indicates? One of the first monologues I ever delivered on-tage 20 years ago in Wabash College’s production of “As You Like It” directed by Michael Abbott – click here … not me reading it, but you get the drift.]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I act because it compels…” The Penny Seats’ upcoming production of Elektra

“…The audience is being given the gift of live theater. Films do not ask from us in their enacting, a film can merrily play out to an empty room, but the very beauty of live theater is the human exchange. Without that sense, it is dead.”

– Emily Miller Mlcak

(Mlcak is a beloved professor from my undergraduate days at Wabash College, and she wrote this in response to “scha·den·freu·de.”)

Elektra cast photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

Elektra cast photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

These words rang in my ears the other week when I crashed a rehearsal of The Penny Seats’ summer production Elektra (as adapted by Ann Arbor’s own Anne Carson) for a sneak peek of the glorious mayhem that is sure to delight audiences at the West Park Band Shell July 10 – 26.

In the spirit of transparency (oh, how I do hate that overused expression), I am one of the founders of The Penny Seats, and I held featured roles in the company’s first slate of offerings: Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), What Corbin Knew, She Loves Me, and Little Me. However, to reclaim some balance in my personal life, I stepped off the board last year and am just a blissfully unencumbered theatre-goer this summer.

(I think I’d be pretty lousy in Greek tragedy anyway – my cheesy musical comedy shtick would likely grate in the world of Sophocles.)

“The very beauty of live theater is the human exchange.” From what I saw of Elektra’s opening scenes, that quality is evident by the bucket-ful. Portraying the title character, Ypsilanti’s Emily Caffery, who recently appeared onstage at both Performance Network and Two Muses Theatre, captures the visceral heartache of a daughter betrayed as her family unravels before her very eyes.

For those unfamiliar with the tragedy, Elektra details the revenge scheme the title character and her brother Orestes exact upon their mother Clytemnestra and step father Aegisthus, in retribution for father Agamemnon’s murder. The action takes place in Argos, shortly after the Trojan War.

Caffery, a student of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theater Institute, notes, “This translation is not stuffy. The piece is very recognizably human. It is immediate and real, and I am using the text as much as possible to bring each image to life.” Indeed, her Elektra is violent yet empathetic, adrift yet fierce, inconsolable yet laser-focused … Dorothy Gale by way of Katniss Everdeen.

The yin to Caffery’s theatrical yang is Sonja Marquis as Elektra’s soccer-mommy-from-hell Clytemnestra. Marquis, a resident of Brighton, has worked at Tipping Point, Purple Rose, Encore, Two Muses, and The Ringwald among many other local theatre companies. “Don’t be scared of the Greek mythology. You’ll find lots to enjoy,” Marquis observes. “Clytemnestra is painted as a villain, but I don’t judge her. As an actor, I look for the justification … Elektra’s father killed my child [Iphigenia, sacrificed to the gods before the play begins]. Obviously, Elektra sees it differently, but why wouldn’t Clytemnestra be angry?”

Marquis quickly adds, with a hearty laugh, “But don’t worry … I definitely haven’t identified with my character’s villainy that much!”

Remaining cast members include Samer Ajluni (“Old Man”/“Aegisthus”), Scott Wilding (“Orestes”), DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton, Sarah Lovy, Katherine Nelson, and Kez Settle. Like Marquis and Caffery, these accomplished thespians have all appeared in venues across Southeast Michigan: Hillberry Theater, Abreact Performance Space, Waterworks, Wild Swan, Planet Ant, JET, and more.

Director Russ Schwartz along with assistant director JP Hitesman are mining the material for contemporary resonance – familial discord, jealousy, anxiety in wartime, sexism, ageism – and are layering in a light amount of cheekiness to keep their audience engaged (and to highlight the darkness that much better). For example, keep your ears open for Ajluni’s marvelously witty take on the expository tale of Orestes’ “death” by chariot race – imagine Ben-Hur as told by an announcer at the Belmont Stakes.

Ajluni, who calls Farmington Hills home, is savvy to the challenges of outdoor theatre. (Elektra will not only be performed outdoors, but the production will take full advantage of all the space surrounding the West Park Band Shell.) “I once did a show in Central Park, and you get a different feel every show. Focus is key,” notes the actor, adding that playing two very different characters “lets you do something far from yourself. … I love when the Old Man gets to be the voice of the audience, telling the characters, ‘Stop giving so many speeches!’”

Lovy, who plays Pylades, a mute boy, chuckles, “I like that they gave me a chance to do drag! Seriously, though, plays like this are important for education. I was introduced at a young age to the classics. That exposure has helped me relate to daily life, family dynamics, and themes. I’m really grateful for that. … I’m the eyes and ears of the show, and I can’t let on what I know or the whole family will blow up”

Settle, one half of the show’s Greek chorus, concurs, “We are there to influence the outcome. We have a job to do … but we are ethereal beings performing a delicate dance between justice and vengeance.”

Nelson, Settle’s fellow chorus member, elaborates, “Ancient Greece is where theatre started, and it continues as a source of great drama with plots as extreme as any summer blockbuster. In our daily lives, we are all so worried about being calm and polite, but a show like this? You can really cut loose.”

With such a fun, fizzy, and damn erudite cast, Schwartz is grateful for this summertime collaboration and echoes his actors’ perspectives. “This show and this cast are so perfect for the space. This is different than anything The Penny Seats have done before, and we wanted to expand our direction a bit.”

Hitesman adds, “This is challenging stuff … very active. The relationships are so intense, like a real family, and working on this reminds you how much the Greek classics have influenced today’s theatre, film, TV.”

Schwartz concludes, “Carson’s adaptation gets to the spirit of what modern audiences will appreciate. It is very immediate and draws you in. If you’ve been away from Greek drama for a while, this show is a great way to reconnect … and if you’ve never seen a Greek tragedy, this is the one for you. Immediate and relatable.”

In the play’s opening scene, Elektra declares, “I act because it compels.” In the context of the play, this proclamation indicates an urgency of movement, but, witnessing this intrepid band of actors exercise their talents, these words take on double meaning. Indeed, they do act because the very doing compels – compels the hearts and minds of both performers and audience. And I, for one, can’t wait to see the finished results!

Elektra opens July 10 and runs through July 26. Shows are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 pm, and tickets are $10 per person. You can purchase tickets at www.pennyseats.org or by calling (734) 926-5346. Patrons may want to may want to bring blankets or camp chairs to sit on, as the tiered seating around the pavilion does not have back support. The company has partnered with a local caterer to have food on-site, and picnicking (beginning at 5:30 pm performance nights) is encouraged.

[This piece first appeared on BroadwayWorld here – I appreciate their wonderful support!]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

scha·den·freu·de: chasing after the same last scrap of bread

Thanks to the Ann Arbor Independent Newspaper which is now including me (semi-regularly) as an arts and culture contributor. My first piece appeared last week as part of their “Culture Vulture” series. A scan of the article is captured below, and the text follows. Enjoy!

Schadenfreude

 

scha·den·freu·de

 noun, often capitalized \ˈshä-dən-ˌfrȯi-də\

: a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people

By now, we’ve all digested the news that beloved, award-winning Ann Arbor-theatrical mainstay The Performance Network abruptly shuttered its doors (and fabulous floor to ceiling windows) on May 22. Possibly between the time this glib little opinion piece was composed and when you are holding it in your hot little hands, more info has come to light, but, right now, we are woefully in the dark, other than one cryptic press release and some social media nervous breakdowns that I will be courteous enough not to repeat here for all parties involved.

(Does PNT not have a PR person worth their salt to manage this situation? ‘Cause there are a lot of accusations flying about the interwebs, hot-blooded musings from troubled artists … the kind of things that make lawyers either shudder or salivate and leave the rest of us just shaking our heads in collective sadness.)

Here’s the official word: “The board of directors of Performance Network Theatre has determined that the theater is not currently financially viable and suspends all operations, effective immediately. The board wants to thank the community, actors, directors, designers, donors, and subscribers for their long-standing support of the theater.”

This is not a lot to go on, and it certainly leaves the stage door wide open for theatre pros and amateurs across the land to conjecture all kinds of tomfoolery and Shakespearean intrigue.

In the spirit of disclosure, I’m one of those rubberneckers. I’m not one of the theatrical “cool kids” in Southeast Michigan. I’m not one of the 12 performers who always get mentioned in Encore (the weekly newsblast that goes out summarizing local theatre) and I will never be nominated for a Wilde Award (especially not now). It sounds like I’m bitter. I’m not. At least not much.

PNT ClosedHowever, I respect deeply the work of those 12 performers. We have such talent and such creativity in the theatre community here. It needs to be cultivated and supported, and these are folks who have given their life’s blood (quite literally) to create some beautiful things in Southeast Michigan.

But, here’s the thing that happens with all artists at the local level, and I’m seriously armchair quarterbacking as someone who has helped found a theatre company, has acted in a lot of amateur and semi-professional productions, and who writes frequently about the arts here: artists talk a good game about supporting each other, but they still tend to behave as if they are all chasing after the same last scrap of bread.

The very profession lends itself to this cutthroat behavior: audition for a role, show up and there are 100 other talented people all wanting it, give it your best shot, dig at the other performers, shake their confidence, get the part (or don’t). And, even when you do get the part, subsist on little to no compensation, give it your all, get knocked around by critics, perform for non-existent audiences, rinse, and repeat.

I can’t speak to the business decisions at the Performance Network or what debts were racked up or how unforeseen calamities (like a burst water pipe) may have been the proverbial straw. But I do wonder about what creative hubris may result from living in perennial fear that some other artists will come along and eat your box office lunch.

A successful creative enterprise must know the audience and be sensitive to changing tastes and styles. I saw a number of shows at Performance Network, and I was always so impressed technically but I also always felt like I was outside looking in. The proceedings felt a bit hermetically sealed … like being assigned really interesting homework.

And I’m enough of a plebian that, ultimately, I’d probably rather spend my entertainment dollars to go see The Avengers than an avant garde treatment of Richard III. That is totally unfair, and really crappy of me to type … but it’s a market truth. Was Performance Network actually competing against The Avengers? Of course not, but did the company reach a point of insularity, inaccessibility, and cliquishness? Possibly.

There does seem to be some hope ahead as a new venture is rising from the ashes – something called Theater NOVA, the mission statement of which (according to their Facebook page) reads: “Creating a more sustainable model of non-profit theatre, through innovation in production/administration, commitment to artists, and true accessibility.” It’s that last word that rings truest. And I hope they mean it – accessibility … of content, for talent, for audiences. That is key. I wish them luck and hope that this momentary crisis has blown out the cobwebs, popped the pretensions, and lit a fire for improved business management. [Check out the latest developments – all seemingly positive – here. And the final resolution from the board as reported here.]

The preceding opinions are not likely to make me very popular in Southeast Michigan’s theatrical community. In fact, they may get me banned for life. I hope not, but, from monitoring social media, I seem to be alone in this perspective. That’s depressing. Successful artists know how to set up the “big tent” and invite everyone in. A closed ecosystem that just cycles through the same resources will always stagnate.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Fa …. a long, long way to run: The Sound of Music Live! (2013 NBC event)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A lot of ink (and, one might argue, blood) has been spilled in the intervening days since The Sound of Music Live! starring country/pop superstar and American Idol Carrie Underwood reaffirmed NBC as a destination for “Must See TV.”

It’s taken me a bit of time (for once) to digest all of my thoughts – less about the show and more about the absurd level of snotty, glib, social-media fueled schadenfreude it seemed to generate.

Just when I thought this telecast (which I enjoyed by the way – more on that in a moment) would be another casualty of America’s silly “culture wars,” along came news that it was one of the most highly viewed shows in recent memory.

The chief driver of controversy and ratings? Ms. Underwood herself, who somehow has become as big a cultural lightning rod as my beloved Miley.

Seriously, watching my Facebook feed Thursday night, I found it fascinating that so many of my “Red State” friends, for whom the Wal-Mart sponsored production’s selection of Underwood seemed targeted, dug in their heels and proclaimed they didn’t like “different” and “it wasn’t like the movie” and “how dare they replace Julie Andrews” (whom I should add herself replaced Mary Martin from the stage show). Conversely, my “Blue State” friends all saw this as some Tea Party conspiracy to send Broadway to the Dark Ages and “bring Hee-Haw to high culture.” (And, yeah, they also didn’t like that is wasn’t Julie Andrews. There goes Underwood, finally bringing this country together again!)

Really? Really, folks? Just unclench and enjoy that someone is trying something new –  ironic, I know, given that this particular show is a pretty musty, overdone piece of musical theatre malarkey, but just go with me here.

I applaud producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for attempting – and succeeding – at the herculean task of getting a three hour, live musical performed, mostly without a hitch, on prime time television to blockbuster viewership. Last time that happened? Fifty years ago with another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – Cinderella – which I might also add committed the “sacrilege” of casting a “hot young thing” in place of another actress who had originated the role (albeit in an earlier TV version). Guess who? Yup, Julie Andrews was “replaced” by Lesley Ann Warren, who was not only a bit dodgy as an actress but not that remarkable a vocalist either.

Zadan and Meron have pretty much led the charge over the past twenty years bringing the American musical into the broader popular consciousness of film and TV. And, yes, one of their gimmicks is creative and unconventional casting that gets them sponsorships, studio green lights, and viewership. Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander and Chynna Phillips in Bye Bye Birdie. Kathy Bates in Annie. Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in Cinderella. Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb in Gypsy. Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger and John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Oscar-winning Chicago. And, yes, John Travolta (and Michelle Pfeiffer) in Hairspray. (NOTE: many of these folks were not necessarily considered musical stars before these productions, but are now.) Would these productions have been artistically “better” with Broadway vets in those roles? Probably. Would these films have gotten made, let alone watched and enjoyed by millions, without these stars? Nope.

And, furthermore, Audrey Hepburn was cast over Andrews in My Fair Lady, the Hollywood penance for this decision in turn landing Andrews Mary Poppins and, I suspect, Sound of Music, which had been written for Broadway for Mary Martin (yes, JR Ewing’s mom who made a name among American viewers for playing a boy – Peter Pan). And should Barbra Streisand have played the lead in the film Hello Dolly! or Lucille Ball Mame? And don’t even get me started on Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (the latter of whom is cuter in the role than people give credit). And I’m not sure I was that nuts about Beyonce in Dreamgirls, though I did adore another American Idol – Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson – for her contributions to that film.

What’s my point – other than showing off all the useless and opinionated knowledge I carry around in my noggin? I’m not quite sure, other than everyone chill the freak out!

How was the show? It was fine – not revelatory but not a train wreck either. Quite the contrary. Yes, Underwood is not an actress, but she is a presence with a pleasant personality and a marvelous voice – all of which seemed to suit the rather bland, nun-lite role of Maria, if you ask me. (I kept thinking of Gwen Stefani the whole time for some reason – they vaguely resemble each other and I also love this riff by Stefani on “The Lonely Goatherd” – truly, check it out!)

Before I get labeled an Underwood apologist, let me say I have always been rather neutral about her. I hate American Idol. I love that she’s a vegan and an animal rights activist, vocally opposed to factory farming and ag gag bills. I find her preening, showy religiosity annoying – yes, we get it – you’re so “blessed.” I adore that she is a social progessive who believes in equal rights for all, including ardent support for gay marriageI do not like country music (unless it’s poppy stuff like Shania or Taylor). I enjoy Underwood more when she’s singing about smashing a cheating boyfriend’s car than when she’s imploring for “Jesus to take the wheel.” (She does seem to sing about motor vehicles a lot, come to think of it.)

The producers wisely surrounded Underwood with a cast of pros (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer’s rigid and kinda dull take on Captain Von Trapp notwithstanding). Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as the Baroness were the absolute rock star standouts of the night. I hate “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” but I was in tears from McDonald’s rendition. And Benanti was a sparkling delight, humanizing what could have been a villainous turn. She has a perfect light yet intelligent touch for this kind of production – I hope they do more with her. The kids were all fine and avoided the cloying, insufferable trap into which so many productions can fall. Newcomer Michael Campayno was marvelous in the tricky role of turncoat boyfriend Rolf.

The set design was sublime – beautifully detailed but consciously theatrical. And I got a visceral thrill when the cast would glide from one locale to another through an open door or a raised curtain, most notably when the family leaves their home for the climactic Nazi rally.

My criticism of the evening? Those d*mn creepy Wal-Mart ads that seemed designed to appeal to some modern, overpopulated, Midwestern yuppie family that buys too much crap and communicates in dull, cutesy quips via their cellular devices when they are one. room. away. from each other. Argh!

Why do people love this musical? And feel so fiercely protective of it? I’m not quite sure – there are much better shows out there, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s many other offerings. There is a strange princess element – young nun finding love with a stodgy rich man in a castle. An inversion of the Beauty and the Beast tale? Or is it the nightmare panic that the Nazi element offers, including the pulse-pounding (and clever) escape from that oppressive regime while singing the oddly creepy “So Long, Farewell.” Not sure, but clearly a lot of folks love this darn story, so bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era.

Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.