New York –
Lindsay Alexis, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, was not complaining about the theater location for “Sea Legs,” a promising musical she helped produce this month for a short run off-Broadway in a Manhattan neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen.
The theater was upstairs in an old, multipurpose building next door to a police precinct house. This is where ambitious young artists launch their careers after moving from places like Ann Arbor and Detroit.
But, Alexis added, wouldn’t it be nice if Detroit, trying again for an economic and cultural renaissance, could provide a similar climate (cheaper, too) for new productions and fresh faces who might not yet be ready for New York?
“There is this surge of creative minds in the state of Michigan who want to pursue theater,” Alexis said. “Why not buy an old warehouse in Detroit for a good price and turn it into a theater? It would be such a positive outlet for a city that gets too much negative publicity.”
Mike Tooman, a recent Wayne State graduate who wrote several sprightly tunes for “Sea Legs,” said theater people would fit in nicely with the influx of painters, writers and musicians who are drifting toward Detroit as a fertile land of opportunity and creativity.
“The art scene in Detroit is really blossoming,” said Tooman, a native of South Lyon.
In the meantime, shows like “Sea Legs” will make their way from places like Walgreen Drama Center’s Studio 1 in Ann Arbor, where it premiered in February as a student production, to the American Theater of Actors, where it opened Sept. 20 as part of the 2014 Araca Project that fosters young entrepreneurs from several universities.
The show is a fanciful and energetic story of teenage orphans in a small seaside town who must choose between setting out to explore the world or settling down where they live to get married and raise families.
Their mythical waterfront village is called “Sweet Ann Harbor” — (Get it? Get it?) — and there is a conflict between the locals and refugees from a destroyed underwater bubble city called “Periscopia.” Stage props are made of sheets (for sails) and cardboard for almost everything else.
The New York production included a 16-member cast and a company of about 40 persons, including a live band, which played (quite well) from a balcony above the stage. Director Taylor Norton, another U-M graduate, said most cast members are in their mid-20s and were chosen from 150 actors who auditioned.
Like most members of the production, she is new to town and works a day job as an intern at the Manhattan Theater Club while gaining a foothold here. The big Broadway theaters are less than a mile away but those 10 blocks can sometimes seem so far.
All have chosen an ancient craft that pre-dates movies and television and will probably endure through whatever comes next. Alexa Bergman, another U-M grad who is also a producer, said: “When you sit in an audience, it’s live. It’s a communal experience. It is magical in itself. It’s not like television.”
Although many of the dance numbers are frenetic, the puns groan-worthy and the costumes bizarre, “Sea Legs” at its heart explores eternal questions and hard decisions that every generation faces in youth and reflects upon in old age.
Bits of dialogue and song include: “I wanted a life I couldn’t have”; “Did I settle down too soon? Was I really compromising?”; “Life’s too short. It’s gonna get worse”; and “I’m a drifter. I’m a grifter. And I do what I do to survive.”
Tooman’s writing partner was Tyler Dean, a Michigan grad he first met at Schoolcraft Community College in 2009.
“Mike and I are cartoony and outlandish,” Dean said. “But many elements are things that people can relate to. They are the same things they are going through. They’re not alone.”