Photo: Doug Hamilton
Photo: Doug Hamilton

Give In to The Temptations

The latest in the line of anthology musicals, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations opened its month-long stint at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night. Written by Kennedy Prize winner Dominique Morisseau, directed by Des McAnuff and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, Motown’s most legendary act is once again thrilling a packed house.

Morisseau’s Detroit roots are on display as she frames Motown’s rise alongside that of the auto industry, as African-Americans from the South arrived in Motor City in search of work, bringing music with them. Through The Temptations, Morisseau tells the story of the musical revolution accompanying this migration; a uniquely African-American chapter of the great American story.

Guided by the earnest narration of Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), the group’s level-headed but extraordinarily driven leader, the audience is taken on a journey from the Temptations’ origins on the streets of Detroit all the way to the top, featuring 31 songs throughout the two-and-a-half hour show.

Instead of settling for being a good-time singalong, Ain’t Too Proud also plumbs the dark depths that accompanied The Temptations’ meteoric rise and classic sound. Between showstoppers like “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “Just My Imagination” and the titular “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” Morisseau explores the tension of a group trying to navigate personal strife and turbulent times.

While much of the conflict centers around the internal, personal tension between the steadfast Williams trying to maintain an egalitarian group dynamic (and his own family) over the protests of spotlight-hungry showman David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), the show also examines how The Temptations were viewed by the country at large, and the irony of their status as a crossover hit. In particular, the calculated business decision by Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) that the group avoid overt political messaging drove home the idea that appreciation from white audiences did not necessarily mean acceptance from white society. This added complexity elevates Ain’t Too Proud above otherwise similar jukebox musicals.

While the Williams, Ruffin rivalry takes center stage, each Temptation shines in his own right. Jawan M. Jackson’s Melvin Franklin, Jeremy Pope’s Eddie Kendricks, and James Harkness’ Paul Williams are each given an opportunity to lay their characters bare and fully capture the Temptations’ spirit, all while pulling off dance routines well worthy of the Classic Five.

Through their sterling catalog and Trujillo’s exquisite recreation of their iconic steps, Ain’t Too Proud both delights audiences and highlights the immense legacy the group has left for acts that followed. To borrow from one of Baskin’s monologues, the Temptations have always been greater than the sum of their parts, and DC (and soon Broadway) would do well to witness their legacy firsthand.

Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations runs through Sunday, July 22 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets start at $79; purchase them here.

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Fareeha Rehman
Photo: Fareeha Rehman

ARTECHOUSE’S NAKED EYES Exhibit More Than Meets The Eye

Immersion through the NAKED EYES exhibit relies less on sight than anticipated. Instead, the experience is heavy on sound, often leaving you in the dark with uneasy, rhythmic beats echoing for multiple seconds as the blue-toned white lights reappear again in their linear form.

Minimal lines and white lights (or lack thereof) are signature features of installations by the artist-musician-architect duo comprising NONOTAK studio. At ARTECHOUSE, visitors can step into four of their installations, all stylistically melding from room to room, but each an entirely unique experience.

“Base Line” was grounded in the largest room, with ten rows of flashing LED lights stretched like oversized guitar strings. With bass-heavy audio, walking between the lights felt like stepping into a Guitar Hero game, the lights alternating in coordination with the music.

The significantly smaller installation, “Ocean,” was like a meditative space. While you can still hear the sounds coming in from Baseline (there is no door to separate the two) the melodic audio by Takami Nakamoto, the musician in the NONOTAK team, was more calming as it synced with the circular light shapes appearing on the wall through horizontal rows of LEDs.

The most disturbing of the installations was aptly-named “Coma.” The kinetic light installation entranced you with a synchronized “dance” and ominous sounds. Then, the one true total immersion came through with the “Zero Point One” installation. Through the doors leads you to a pitch black space appearing to be infinite. The lights (using fiber optic and lasers) are contained in a central boxy grid shape, that opens and closes as the lasers zoom vertically, horizontally, and cross each other.

The magic about Noemi Schipfer and Takami Nakamoto’s pieces are that they captivate through minimalism. There are no bright, firework-like displays. You enter a world that is black and white, but hard to look away from. Though it’s meant to be seen through “naked eyes,” the exhibit depends on music to set the tone throughout each installation. Without soundproof divisions, the music for each space even interacts at times and alters the immersion.

I’d recommend going during non-peak times so as to not disrupt the lights and sounds with other visitors crowding around. After walking through, you can take a seat at the bar with a view of Base Line behind you and try an augmented reality cocktail. Bringing the NONOTAK aesthetic to another dimension, the cocktails will appear to have lasers and shapes when using the ARTECHOUSE app.

NAKED EYES by NONOTAK studio runs through June 30. Tickets are $15, with a student and child discount available.

ARTECHOUSE: 1238 Maryland Ave. SW, DC; www.artechouse.com

Photo: Anna Gaca
Photo: Anna Gaca

Japanese Breakfast Brings Her “Soft Sounds” to 9:30 Club

Michelle Zauner, better known as Japanese Breakfast, took the stage at the 9:30 Club in light-up sneakers that slightly resembled moon boots, jumped along to her song “Machinist” off her most recent release Soft Sounds from Another Planet, and told the sold-out crowd with an unwavering degree of cheer, “This is about being in love with a robot!”

Throughout the night, Zauner continues to tell the crowd what each song is about, letting her audience in on her creative world she’s now cultivated across two albums. Even on tracks from Psychopomp, her first record, which deals with the loss of her mother, you can feel the healing energy that comes from expressing those experiences through music.

Her band matches her energy and talent throughout the night. Adding to the unique onstage energy is her husband Peter Bradley on bass. When Zauner and company begin to play “Til Death,” she looks to Bradley and quips, “This song is about marriage.” She’s quick to add “Gross,” getting a good laugh out of the already smiling crowd.

Her conversational tone in both her comments and her lyrics adds to her relatability, something that has earned her well deserved critical acclaim. Coupled with her onstage enthusiasm and wildly good cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams,” Japanese Breakfast is a live act not to be missed.

Learn more about Japanese Breakfast here.

Photo: Courtesy of Erin Brethauer
Photo: Courtesy of Erin Brethauer

Pop-Up Magazine’s Interactive Stories, From Politics to Karaoke

We’ve written before about the draw of performative storytelling here in the District, but the desire for people to connect with storytellers in a physical space beyond the page or screen also extends outside the boundaries of the DMV. In addition to locally sourced and produced shows, many live storytelling events (i.e. The Moth Story Hour, Mortified, A Prairie Home Companion to name a few) travel from city to city, engaging regularly with new audiences eager to participate in the experience. There is undeniable power and draw to live interaction, made even more precious in the digital age. Indeed, the increasing popularity of the “story told live” trend points to an attempt to reconnect with our human past, deeply rooted in oral histories. 

Founded in San Francisco in 2009, Pop-Up Magazine occupies a unique niche in this realm of live and interactive storytelling.  Drawing heavily on a journalistic tradition, its shows are crafted around reported stories. Like many others, Pop-Up Magazine’s shows are produced for the stage with a live audience, but Pop-Up Magazine’s multimedia approach – incorporating the work of print journalists, radio producers, illustrators, animators, filmmakers and others – also sets it apart.

Senior Producer Tina Antolini says the magazine was born from an idea to draw communities of diverse media makers together, as well as “creating or fleshing out a new medium for telling stories” that incorporate aspects of different kinds of media.

Antolini, who spent the majority of her career in radio journalism prior to joining the Pop-Up Magazine team, speaks to the difference in processes for both creators and consumers of media between working in-studio and experiencing a story remotely (perhaps while jogging, or commuting, or otherwise not fully immersed), respectively, versus the collaborative and immersive Pop-Up Magazine model.

“The dynamic of telling a story live to an audience and having them receive it is a world of difference from recording your tracks in the studio. I think that the audience has a totally different experience, too, receiving nonfiction stories this way. So often we’re consuming stories now as an individual, and to have a collective experience of a story, I think the emotional pull of that is different – for example, the funnier things are funnier when everyone else around you is laughing,” said Antolini.

Pop-Up Magazine’s shows are not themed, but instead depend on the collaboration of a cast of writers, producers, artists and media-makers of all kinds to bring reported stories to life. Some of the stories included may ultimately be destined for other media forms, like documentary work, and so, says Antolini, “it’s a collaboration from the earliest stages in terms of thinking about the story idea that might work for the show and helping to shape it specifically for the stage.”

Some shows involve Choose Your Own Adventure style participation, while others engage in more emotional or artistic ways. This spring’s tour, for example, includes the communal viewing (and subsequent communal experience of interpreting) of a photo essay from a photographer who has been documenting the response to mass shootings over the past eight years. A story like this is relevant and moving and perhaps crucial for us as a society to see together, and Pop-Up Magazine provides the outlet for us to do so.

Another important aspect of Pop-Up Magazine is that it shows not all nonfiction is inherently heavy, or difficult to approach. On the lighter side, for example, a past iteration included a story about the top five most dangerous karaoke songs that led to conflict in karaoke bars, which culminated with the whole audience singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

As with any live performance, the tone and experience of each showing varies depending on who is present, and what is happening in the lives of the presenters and audience members alike – something that is also true but often overlooked and underestimated in the case of traditional media consumption – but the goal is for each one to be both enjoyable and challenging.

“I think this show in particular manages to have some stories that are really relevant to the present moment of not just politics, but issues that people are really thinking and caring about that are approached in Pop-Up Magazine’s signature very beautiful, thoughtful way,” says Antolini.

Pop-Up Magazine will conclude its spring 2018 Tour at The Warner Theatre in DC on Wednesday, May 23. Additional highlights include a moment of live visual art, co-writing by a robot, and an acting performance from a character in one of the reported stories. Tickets and information can be found here.

 

Photo: Shantel Mitchell Breen
Photo: Shantel Mitchell Breen

Fleet Foxes Float Through The Anthem

Fleet Foxes’ stage presence can be summed up in two words: beautiful and clinical. While these aren’t words you would necessarily pair together, the band’s show at The Anthem was initially a reserved display of their obvious talent that transformed into more as the night continued.

As a unit, the band is excellent at recreating their expansive sound in large venues such as The Anthem. They also chose a diverse mix of songs, spanning all three of their albums. This came as a surprise to me as their most recent release, Crack-Up, was widely lauded by critics as their best album yet. I expected the night to be heavy on the latest release, but was thrilled to hear the deep cuts.

The band found more passion when they dove into these songs, too. A trifecta of songs from their self titled debut – the crowd pleasing “White Winter Hymnal,” jangly “Ragged Wood” and my personal favorite track, “Your Protector” – saw an energy that wasn’t evident from the get go. Luckily for the audience, Pecknold and company sustained this passion through the rest of the 22 song set.

Not to detract from the band’s skills, as they are a very talented bunch, but frontman Robin Pecknold’s solo performances of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and “Oliver James” encapsulated the magic of the band’s ethereal, nature inspired sounds.

Like all good things, the lead up to the band’s eventual triumphant close was worth it. For the encore, Pecknold was reunited with his bandmates for the anthemic “Helplessness Blues,” a song whose chorus begs, “I’ll get back to you someday, soon you will see.” One thing is clear to see, Fleet Foxes slow burn of a live show is well worth seeing.

Learn more about Fleet Foxes here.