Elissa Miller

Elissa Miller is the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Niner Times. She is a junior at UNC Charlotte studying Communications and Political Science. When she isn't reviewing theater for Niner Times, she is working on bringing sex education to campus through Sex Week UNC Charlotte or forcing her friends to binge watch television with her. In the future, she would like to be an investigative journalist, a lawyer, or the second female President of the United States (because if there isn't one before the time she gets there, that's just sad).

Best Songs of 2018 as Selected by A&E Writers

Album art courtesy of Tessa Violet.

Elissa Miller

4. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” by the “Mary Poppins Returns” Cast: If there was a machine that you could throw your interests in to create a new product, the entirety of the movie “Mary Poppins Returns” would be my result. A sequel to one of my favorite movies? Check. Lin-Manuel Miranda as a character reminiscent of Bert the Chimney Sweep, my first childhood crush? Check. London as a backdrop for musical theater? You got it. While the movie is not a perfect film, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a practically-perfect song and dance number. Clearly mirroring “Step In Time” from the first film, this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (and the movie’s) biggest number. It absolutely screams classic musical theater in both sound and design. Honestly, this felt extremely cathartic, because while I’ve loved the recent resurgence of musical films, they’ve generally failed to truly recapture that signature style. The dancing is absolutely breathtaking. The song is catchy and upbeat. Lin-Manuel Miranda looks like he is literally made of sunshine. I cried.

3. “Burn the House Down” by AJR: AJR crafted a perfect album with “The Click” in 2017. It was hard to imagine that adding anything could improve it, yet “The Click (Delux Edition)” somehow managed to do so when it included four new songs. While I’m a fan of generally every new addition, this the absolute best of them. It is a loud, angry anthem that reflects on Twitter and modern-day protest culture, while still being able to function as a dance track. The band allowed it to be used in conjunction with the March for Our Lives movement earlier this year. Everything about it, from the musical style (the horns in this are GREAT) to the lyrics, is compelling. More songs like this in 2019, please.

2. “Bad Ideas” by Tessa Violet: While Tessa Violet made waves with her other release, “Crush,” this year, I’m quite partial to this second song. One of many musicians to first find their audience on YouTube, Violet has continuously grown as an artist to create a signature style. This is incredibly clear with “Bad Ideas,” which stands out among indie-pop releases for its unique sound. Lyrically, it explores the concept of falling for someone you really don’t want to, while sounding upbeat and light as a musical piece. The music video for this is also a great time and uses color in one of the best ways I’ve ever seen. Violet will continue releasing her new album as singles in 2019; I’m incredibly excited to see how it evolves.

1. “Everybody’s Lonely” by Jukebox the Ghost: I definitely link songs to specific times and places in my life. “Everybody’s Lonely,” off Jukebox the Ghost’s fifth album, “Off To The Races,” was the distinct soundtrack of my study abroad trip in the spring. I listened to it during bus commutes, while stuck in airports and when typing papers at the very last minute. It is extremely fun to listen and sing along to, yet it is also complex musically. It uses a number of instruments and vocal layering; soundwise it is largely reminiscent of the band Queen. I cannot recommend it enough.

Photo courtesy of Sony Classical Records.

Noah Howell

4. “Spidey-Bells (A Hero’s Lament) by Chris Pine: “Into the Spider-Verse” was one of my favorite films of the year, and is easily the best animated feature of 2018. The whole ride is a spidey-bonanza, and waiting into the credits was worth the wait for this song alone. Chris Pine is hilarious here and he gives me the Spider-Man Christmas song I never knew I actually needed. This song, along with the album I discovered on Spotify after the movie, will be a staple in my Christmas playlist for years to come.

3. “Shockwave” by Elena Siegman: Easter egg songs are a staple within every zombies map in the “Call of Duty: Black Ops” series, and many of these, like “Shockwave,” are written by Kevin Sherwood and performed by Elena Siegman. There is a reason for this: simply because the duo is fantastic. Siegman’s vocal performance is always stellar, and while the lyrics take a bit to wrap your head around, her job on the song here is no different. I don’t usually find myself listening to much heavy rock/metal like this song, but perhaps it’s just a great backdrop to the actual gameplay of killing zombies that makes it work so well.

2. “That’s The Way it is” by Daniel Lanois: The score within “Red Dead Redemption 2” is already phenomenal, but the best moments of the game are the long, reflective horse rides which come after key story beats and feature songs from a variety of different artists. This song comes towards the game’s climax and is the perfect beat to go alongside the penultimate moment of the player’s journey. I can’t give away too much without risk of spoiling the game, but the song is right at home at this particular moment and is one that will stick with me for a while. 

1. “Kitster’s Song” by Trevor Moore: When a friend first suggested this song to me, I was on board right from hearing the title. A song about Anakin Skywalker’s somewhat obscure friend in “The Phantom Menace” who had only a handful of lines? Count me in. The song straddles the line of being outright hilarious and emotional all at once, with Moore singing from the point of view of Kitster years after his appearance on-screen, reminiscing on what his childhood friend — now Darth Vader — is doing these years later. I had never listened to Moore before this, but one thing is for certain, he knows his “Star Wars.” Parodies of “Star Wars” songs usually rely on simply changing up the lyrics of an already popular song, but Moore creates an entirely new song on his own for Kitster and it is a great one.

Album art for “EVERYTHING IS LOVE” courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment.

Breanna Herring

4. “Sauce All On Me” by CoCa Vango: Another song to contribute to my high self-esteem! This song raps about containing the sauce. “Sauce” is used to describe someone who has a style, confidence and attraction about them.

3. “Nice” by The Carters: Let’s be honest, The Carters are black royalty. This song serves as a confidence boost for me and motivates me to be successful. Some of the lyrics highlight how African Americans are told that they can do anything in America, but racism and inequality challenge the belief.

2. “Wasted Love Freestyle” by Jhené AikoThis song hit close to home for me. The song describes how sometimes our energy and love are not reciprocated back to us in a relationship. We find ourselves realizing that we wasted our time and energy on someone who was incapable of loving us the way we wanted to be loved.

1. “CPR” by Summer Walker: I adore Summer Walker and can completely relate to her and her music. The song “CPR” is a metaphor describing the artist’s lover. She characterizes his love as air bringing her back to life because she’s been misunderstood and alone for so long.

Album art for “Let’s Go Sunshine” courtesy of Lonely Cat Records.

Tyler Trudeau

4. “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar, SZA: As Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ erupted onto the screen as one of 2018’s biggest movies, the soundtrack, curated by hip-hop icon Kendrick Lamar, also made waves as it brought some of the top names in hip-hop together to showcase the massive influence of the superhero hit. Featuring the likes of The Weeknd, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz and Future, the song that comes to my mind first lies in the Lamar and SZA team-up “All the Stars.” With it kicking off the end credits for the blockbuster film, the rhythmic ballad of SZA mixed with Lamar’s rap inklings remains one of the top tracks from the soundtrack.

3. ”Holy” by King Princess: One of the most enigmatic new artists I uncovered this year was Brooklyn native Mikaela Strauss, or as her fans know her, King Princess. A multi-instrumentalist with soulful vocals to match the atmospheric synth melodies that run behind her, Strauss has already made a name for herself as the next bold revolutionary in the queer-pop genre. As a proud member of the LGBTQ community, the artist has expertly carved her way to the top as one of the most promising new artists out there. While her early hit “1950” might have won the hearts of fellow artists Harry Styles, Halsey and Mark Ronson, her somewhat haunting track “Holy” off her debut EP echoes with sonic nuance and cinematic flair.

2. “No Pressure” by The Kooks: After grappling onto other alternative rock groups like Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes, the unique sound of English band The Kooks quickly drew me into a similar fascination into their more recent releases. While their hit 2006 track “Naive” made for a worthy song to lodge itself eternally within my brain, I didn’t initially pick up their later records until this year’s “Let’s Go Sunshine.” With the rest of the record offering a foot-tapping catalog of drunken nights and unrequited affections, the closing number of “No Pressure” perfectly captures the ease and joys of a new relationship.

1. “Superposition” by Young the Giant: Easily one of my most anticipated albums of the year, the latest record from indie rock outfit Young the Giant kicked off with a trio of sensational, cinematic and undeniably catchy tracks. Escorting us effortlessly into their newest collection of soul-searching tunes of lost love, adrift ambitions and super-sonic melodies, the best of the trio in ‘Superposition’ shows off the band’s talented and atmospheric instrumentals, as well as the dreamy vocal nuances of frontman Sameer Gadhia.   

Album art for “Joy As An Act Of Resistance” courtesy of Partisan Records.

Aaron Febre

4. “One Point Perspective” by Arctic Monkeys: It was pretty difficult to pick one track off the new Arctic Monkeys album as I was thoroughly impressed with the overall product. This song takes the cake due to the wonderful layering of instrumentation, Alex Turner’s witty and observable lyricism as well as one of his best vocal performances. Plus, this reminds me of the 1970s for inexplicable reasons.

3. “Baby I’m Bleeding” by JPEGMAFIA: Released in January, JPEGMAFIA’s “Veteran” is one of the most exciting and intense albums of the year. “Baby I’m Bleeding” shows JPEGMAFIA’s fierce flow that is backed-up with an abrasive production that will leave your jaws dropped. Go ahead and play this, you won’t find another hip-hop track (or album) of this year that as fierce as this one.

2. “Dilemma” by Death Grips: As if all of their music wasn’t crazy enough, Death Grips returned with an even crazier album that made their previous work look more accessible. Out of my favorites from “Year of the Snitch,” “Dilemma” is my favorite for various reasons. Spoken word by Andrew Adamson (the director of “Shrek”), MC Ride screaming “DILEMMA!”, the video-game synthesizer and too many things that are incomprehensible to digest even for a fan of Death Grips.

1. “I’m Scum” by Idles: English Punk band Idles returned with a new album (“Joy As An Act of Resistance”) that is catchier and angrier than their 2017 album, “Brutalism.” This track encompasses the overall sound of the new album: Joe Talbot’s gruff voice, the steady and danceable rhythm, dirty guitars, a chorus that drunk soccer (or football) fans can sing along to, and the theme of “say what you want, I don’t care” in the lyrics make this song a favorite.

Artwork for “TINTS” courtesy of Aftermath/12 Tone Music LLC.

Cecilia Whalen

4. “Bring Me Love” by John Legend: Yeah, it’s a Christmas song. I get it; Christmas is over. But I love John Legend, so I take what I can get. He definitely has one of the most beautiful voices of this generation, and this song is upbeat, well-arranged, and of course, well-sung.

3.“TINTS (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” by Anderson .Paak: I don’t think there’s anything smart I can say about this song, but it’s just fun to sing along and dance to, OK? Plus Kendrick Lamar is featured on it, so you know it’s gotta be a win.

2. “1985” by J. Cole: I love J. Cole’s voice and basically every song he’s done. This song is kind of a diss track to all those who have come out dissing him, but Cole doesn’t just cuss them out and be done with it. Cole warns them about the harm their attitudes and their lifestyles are causing themselves and others — and he doesn’t sound like a bully or a punk defending his own pride. Really, he sounds like a big brother looking out for the hip-hop community, while peppered with the occasional big brother boast.

1. “Brackets” by J. Cole: J. Cole knows how to use rhythm. While a lot of rappers tend to repeat a similar rhythmic pattern, triplet and sixteenth after triplet and sixteenth, Cole masters syncopation. This matched with his poetry creates a whole album of reflection and creativity, and “Brackets” is the climax of both of these musical attributes.

Album art for “Love” courtesy of Reprise Records.

Mayra Trujilo-Camacho

4. “Taki Taki” by Selena Gomez, Ozuna, Cardi B and DJ Snake: It’s a song I can dance to that has a mix of Spanish and English.

3. “Money” by Cardi B: I just think it’s a very catchy song and even a good workout song. It’s very hype.

2. “Scripted” by ZAYN: This song comes from his second album “Icarus Falls,” after leaving One Direction in 2015.  It is a love song with a creative melody and nice chill R&B background.

1. “Love You Anymore” by Michael Bublé: From his new album “Love,” which was released two years after his son was diagnosed with liver cancer. “Love You Anymore” is a very beautiful song. It’s more of a song to forget your ex, but it just has a very nice melody and aesthetic.

Album art for “CARE FOR ME” courtesy of Saba Pivot, LLC.

Arik Miguel

4. Shoota (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)” by Playboi Carti: When I listen to this song, I know that half of what I’m singing is my incorrect decipherings of Uzi and Carti’s mumble rapping. The other half of the lyrics have about as much depth as the line “money on the floor just like some shoes,” but maybe that’s not a bad thing. “Shoota” is fun just for the sake of being fun, and that’s really all we could have asked of these two besties in 2018.

3. “Hunnybee” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra: This is one the most gleefully infectious songs I have heard in a long time. “Hunnybeehas the power to evoke the childhood joy that comes from somersaulting down a grassy hill.

2. “PROM / KING” by Saba: “CARE FOR ME” is Saba’s greatest album yet, and “PROM / KING” is its emotional peak. The seven and a half minute song builds up slowly until Saba is rapping at breakneck speed, describing his cousin’s untimely death. Saba has always had an incredible gift for storytelling, but he’s never told his story as breathtakingly as this.

1. “Noid” by Yves Tumor: Yves Tumor intertwines beauty and violence in an incredibly jarring and exciting way. “Noid” is unlike any song I have heard in my life. Almost as if you asked an alien to compose a song about police brutality.


Listen to the music featured in this article via the Spotify playlist below!

INTERVIEW: Kristin Stokes talks “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical”

Greek gods. Monsters. Young demigods traveling cross-country to save the world as we know it. “The Lightning Thief,” a young adult novel from 2005, tells the story of Percy Jackson, a middle-school boy who discovers he is actually the demigod son of Poseidon. A fan favorite, it has spawned multiple spin-off series, two movies and an Off-Broadway musical. The musical originally premiered Off-Broadway in 2017 (though other shorter versions of the production were created earlier). It is now traveling across the United States on its first National Tour and will stop in Charlotte in January. Actress Kristin Stokes, who plays the role of Annabeth Chase, talked with Niner Times about transferring to a National Tour, the purpose of a musical adaptation and staging fight choreography.

My understanding is that you’ve been with “The Lightning Thief: The Musical” for quite some time, starting with the workshop productions, is that correct?

“Yeah, absolutely.”

So you played the role of Annabeth during the Off-Broadway production. What continues to draw you to this musical? What continues to bring you to this role?

“You know, every time I dive into this show, I can find something new and something deeper to kind of latch onto. I feel like, you know, like you said, I’ve been doing this…the first workshop was actually in 2013, so it’s been five years which I think is hilarious because one of the lyrics is ‘five long years stuck at camp’ and it’s going to be true this year. I will be here for five years stuck at camp. But not stuck. Like, in the best way possible.

This time around, I really am feeling this kind of new-found feminism that is kind of taking over the world right now. And that was always kind of a part of Annabeth; she is very straightforward, she knows what she wants, she is very much an individual and a fighter, and I found that. But the last production we did was the first time she got her own song, so it was kind of figuring out, ‘Okay, how does this song ‘My Grand Plan’ fit into these past versions of her that I created?’ Now being able to, like, sit with this for like a year almost since we last did it, you know, it sinks in deeper; the meaning of the song and of the lyrics. So I’m just like really excited to get out there and like tie it all together even more with Annabeth’s purpose and strength of who she is, not just as a character but as a female, and kind of like a female who is standing on her own two feet without the plotline of a love story or anything. She is just like her own woman and I love that about her.”

And is that what drew you to her initially or is that a new thing?

“That’s definitely something that I loved about her always but I’m finding it even more so this time around. I think what initially drew me to her was [that] she’s just like a badass. I was like who is this girl? Why is she like the smartest person in the show? Love that. I’m like, ‘that’s me.’ I love that she’s like, ‘Okay boys, if you’d stop talking for like five seconds, I had the answer like 10 minutes ago.’ And I just really found myself identifying with her. Honestly, she’s allowed me to become more of myself; allowed me to be more of the smart girl in the room as opposed to being like, ‘Alright, well eventually someone will hit the idea I have sneakily proposed a while ago,’ as opposed to now I’m just like, ‘Actually, no, this is the idea. This is the right idea,’ or ‘This is the answer.’ You know what I mean? So yeah, I love her and I just love her even more with each passing year.”

Going from doing something like an Off-Broadway production where you are in the same theatre every night, how is transferring that to a National Tour and approaching that different?

“You know what? I don’t even know yet, I don’t even know. I have the same question! It’s going to be really exciting and it’s going to take the show up a notch even more so. This show is so energetic; we do so much, you know, we’re doing all the fighting and stage combat and movement and it’s a very hands-on show where we, as the actors, we’re moving a lot of…not the set-pieces, but big chunks of the set around, whether that’s like a podium or a chair, or we’re holding this down because now it creates a monster. We are the ones creating the show and so I’m really excited to see how each space is going to inform how we create the show because it’s definitely going to be a part of our journey, for sure.”

I know there are some new additions to the cast as well as original cast members. Would you say it’s more a feeling of excitement than loss of losing old cast members?

“So, I’m very excited. Obviously Chris McCarrell, Sara Beth Pfeifer and James Rodriguez, they are all coming back and we are so pumped. We are so excited, we are making like all of our tour plans. And I also was on like pins and needles waiting to find out, ‘Okay, who are going to be our three new cast members?’ I didn’t even know until the Playbill article came out announcing them. And then I did some online stalking — as everyone should — and I was like, ‘They’re awesome, they are great!’ So I’m just really excited to see what this new family is together, and especially because I have had the amazing opportunity to be in the show since the beginning, I have experienced that with each new reiteration. There are always new people who come in and then we lose people and then they get replaced with someone who’s going to add even more to it. That’s always amazing for me. It’s always why it is never going to be the same show for me because each person that comes to the cast, they really get the freedom (and that speaks to our director, Stephen Brackett) to really invent the character for themselves. So I’m just so excited to see what these three new people are going to bring to the show and the roles and it’s going to be amazing.”

I have a genre of questions that relate to “The Lightning Thief” being an adaptation of a quite popular young adult novel. How do you prepare yourself to take on a role that is an adaptation of well-loved, popular character?

“I read the books. I’ve read them so many times I’m actually reading the series for the third time right now to prepare myself because every time I read it I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right! This happens.’ At least for me, this is part of my prep, I don’t know what everyone else likes to do, but I want to know everything. I want to know everything that we don’t even get the opportunity to touch upon in the musical because, you know, it has to be two hours. So we take short-cuts but we still get the emotional arc and the storyline across, but we might have to cut a few things that are that are more elaborated obviously in the book. Having it be a book, especially as opposed to, you know, a lot of musicals are adapted from movies nowadays and having it be adapted from a book that’s a humongous series, there is just a wealth of information that I get to dive into and it’s basically just like secrets into how this character thinks constantly and it is so helpful, so I just try to learn as much as I can and figure out how she aligns with who I am naturally.”

So would you say that “The Lightning Thief” musical is much closer to the book than, say, the movie adaptation?

“(laughter) Mhm, have you seen it?”

Yes, I went opening night sixth grade.

“Oh my gosh, you did?”


“Oh my gosh, did you dress up? Be honest.”

No, I did not. But I had a blog. Like a fan blog.

“Yes, I love it! I actually haven’t seen the movie because, you know, the fans are very vocal about their dissatisfaction with the movies (as well as Rick Riordan), so I have steered clear, honestly, of the movies and have only been reading the books. But maybe, I’ve always wanted like all of us in the cast to like get together and have a fun night watching the movies and being like ‘Oh, what is happening right now?’ because I know, I’ve heard everyone’s been like, ‘Don’t do it!’ but I have to; it’s like that thing you can’t look at but you want to.”

It is an interesting endeavor. Do you think when people compare books to movies — or books to musicals — is that an intimidating comparison or, you know, musical theater is such a different medium, is that even a fair comparison to make?

“Yeah. More kind of your second option there. I feel like you, especially with books, it is a fantastic source material. But I feel like part of what is the purpose of an adaptation is kind of being like, ‘Alright, what didn’t this version of the story do that we can uplift in this new genre?’ The books are incredible, and it’s like, ‘Okay, so why make it into a movie? Why make it into a musical?’ The characters have such a wonderful emotional life throughout the entirety of the books. Rick does such a great job of, kind of…they’re angsty and their feelings come through with everything that they are doing and I think when you add music to that and underscoring that and you get to, kind of like, within a book you get to hear someone’s inner monologue, that’s what happens on stage with the song. And I think just like when you add music to anything that takes care of someone’s emotional life already, so I just think it’s fun to be like ‘What is the music of these characters?’ And it’s a really cool, kind of rock score.”

I think that totally already answers my next question, which was what is added via a musical format? But I think that exploration of emotional life totally already speaks to that.

“Yeah, and I think also, especially with Percy (since it is his story especially in this first book), you know, he is the son of the sea god and to me, water and the sea [are] all about emotions, and that’s kind of what happens. When Percy feels great or emotional, this kind of wave comes out of him and that’s when he gets to express his abilities, and what better way to express those waves of emotion than with a freaking high belting rock song?”

Was Rick Riordan involved in any way with the production?

“No, not really. We had his blessing, which was huge, as obviously with the rights. His…I think it’s his publicist or manager…he had someone from his office that’s very close to working with Rick, she was with us always and she was such a huge supporter. Everyone in Rick’s office, including Rick, they’re fans of the musical. Rick will tweet out something about the musical, like when the album came out or when the show is running. He’ll probably tweet about the tour and every time we see that, honestly, kind of like the inside joke is like [that] Rick is one of the Greek gods and we are the demigods and we’re like, ‘We’ll never see our dad but we still love you!’

So he hasn’t been able to see the show?

“No, not that we know of unless he’s come incognito and didn’t tell anybody. He’s kind of like Poseidon, where we’re like we love him and know we probably will never see him but we have his blessing to continue on our quest of spreading ‘The Lightning Thief’ all around the world and so that’s all we really need.”

What has the fan response been like for you? Have you ever engaged with the fans?

“Oh yeah, they are very vocal and they love it and I am so blessed. We are blessed by the gods that they love our show because we knew what we were heading into with the dangerous movie territory. Honestly, we were like we got to get this right. That’s really thanks to Joe Tracz and Rob Rokicki who did the book and the music. Joe Tracz also did the book for ‘Be More Chill’ and he also did the adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events,’ so he also is a writer on that show…he is very familiar with adapting young adult novels to current formats. He is meticulous in the story and he just has such a wonderful feeling for the humor and who these kids are, that it is really thanks to him and Rob that this is such a success because, you know, if the book wasn’t good, if the music wasn’t good, then I think we’d be in deep trouble. And you know, he knew [he had to focus on] what are the key points that the fans need? What is the point of these books? It’s not, obviously, I haven’t seen the movie but, it’s not to be like a big, Hollywood blockbuster, star-studded gorgeous-looking-cast-member mystical movie. It’s like, ‘No, these are scrappy kids who are angsty and who are upset about their parents and are finding out who they are and finding out the things that make them different are the things that make them strong.’ It’s really thanks to Joe and Rob that we have the fan following that we do.”

Do you have any standout experiences that you remember from an interaction with a fan?

“Oh my gosh, it’s been like a while, it’s been over a year-and-a-half now, but it would just be incredible to walk out after the show and see, just the lines of people in their own Camp Half-Blood shirts that they made or other shirts that they made. And then after they’d been running, now they are coming and they’re cosplaying like us. There are people that come that wear a blonde wig and buy my shirt and my pants, and the same with Chris. We’re like ‘Okay, you guys have, you are truly on board with this show.’ I get tons of fanart still to this day from the show and it’s, you know, I am so lucky that we have such support of the fans and I love it. I’m like you guys are just the sweetest. Chris would always say (I never got to see it) but during my song, ‘My Grand Plan,’ Chris, who plays Percy, he would get to sit back and watch me vent during this song and he might, you know, do a little peek out into the audience and he was always like, ‘You know what? Every girl in that audience is watching you and hearing everything you say.’ And the lyrics of the song are just so uplifting and powerful for these young girls to hear and so that was always cool, even though I didn’t get to see it, but hearing Chris say that. Yeah, they’re listening for sure.”

What would you say the audience is typically like, is it typically younger kids or is it college-aged people who maybe grew up with it, that kind of thing?

“Honestly, it’s all ages and I was shocked. I thought it was going to be young adults, maybe college kids who grew grown up with it, but it has been spanned the gamut to like young kids or just discovering these books for the first time so it can be like really scary and exciting, to high school/college kids who know everything by heart and know all the facts and they’re like cheering us on, to parents and adults who are really loving all of the like ridiculous adults and their representations in the story. I think it’s something that really brings everybody together because everyone can find themselves in the story for sure.”

Do you have a favorite moment in the show that really sticks out with you?

“Oh gosh, I’m trying to remember. I mean, there’s like a few. I really love the fighting sequences. It just feels like so cool to be like, ‘I have a staff, I have this knife, I’m fighting, I’m super cool.’ It makes you feel like a demigoddess and after you finish the show you’re like (exhausted) ‘Oh My God,’ which you kind of have to be to get through this entire show. But I really love all the fighting sequences, it makes me feel like an action superstar and I love that. I want more of that in my life. Also ‘Drive.’ ‘Drive’ is such a fun montage of a song; it’s kind of our road trip song. There are so many moving pieces and different things that are happening. We’re like on a bus, then we’re on a motorcycle, then we’re like ‘Oh, we’re in Vegas!’ and it’s just the most ridiculous thing. There’s a tractor that we’re on, it is so…it is just the most fun song. For me, it’s the first time that the trio is getting along and that always feels good. Because when you have to have tension for the entire show and now, it’s like ‘Okay, now we’re a team,’ and you really feel that. All three of us are at peace and we’re all like, ‘Oh, we’re all on the same side, we’re grooving, we’re singing this one song, we’re traveling.’ It really is like a real moment of joy.”

How do you train for the on-stage combat fighting sequences? How do you stage those?

“We have an amazing fight choreographer, Rod Kinter, and he’ll go over all the basics and stuff with people who haven’t done the fighting before, but, you know, it’s a lot of training. We spend a lot of rehearsal time learning the fights and perfecting them, making sure they’re safe, and then we have to put them to some pretty fast-paced music. It’s not like some normal fight choreography where you get to take your time and you’re looking for cues and breathing and doing all this stuff. It’s like ‘No, do all that. Plus, can you time it to music? And it has to be done in like one bar. Thank you.’ It’s pretty intense so we start pretty slow and we gradually build up speed until we all feel extremely comfortable. With any show that has fight choreography, we do a fight call before every show. The amount of fights that are in the show, there’s a lot of them, so fight call can take like 15 to 30 minutes (so it’s pretty extensive when like usually a fight call is like five to 10 minutes), so we’re always practicing, we’re always checking in and just making sure that everything is safe.”

So had you come into this with fight experience before?

“Yeah, I had. It had been a while but I had some fight experience in college mostly and throughout a couple different shows, but this is definitely the most extensive stage combat that I have done in a show which is great. It is super fun.”

I think it’s really great that the show has managed to get a cast album that you can listen to on Spotify. What is the process like of recording a cast album and do you ever listen to it on your own time?

“Yes is the answer. I totally do and I’ll totally be listening to it, honestly, to be like ‘Oh yeah, what was that song? How did my harmony go?’ because it’s a really great reminder of everything that I sang a year-and-a-half ago. So I’ll be able to go, ‘Oh, okay that’s right.’ So I’ll probably be listening to it this week before going into rehearsals to get the vibe up. Recording the cast album is super fun it’s like a dream. We got to be in this gorgeous recording studio that tons of other Broadway musicals have recorded in. ‘Sunday In The Park With George’ was recording the same day as us, so for someone has been in theater like all her life, I was like, “Ahhhh! I am on hallowed ground! Everyone has recorded here! This is amazing! Whose mic is this? Should I kiss it? I don’t know…’ It was so awesome. Everyone is like so nice, they were all rooting for you to sound your best. It was just like a dream of a day for all of us to be in a recording studio and looking at each other across the booth and being like ‘Oh my God we’re singing right now, this is going to be the album that other people listen to!’ It was a dream for sure.”

Wrapping things up, I do always like to ask everyone: How did you get into acting and was there a moment that you knew that you wanted to be an actress?

“I got into acting because I was an outgoing child. Honestly, because my mom was into it. She did shows when she was in high school and then she went to college for musical theatre in California. And then she kind of stopped for a while and had a family and had me and my two siblings and then she kind of decided one day that she wanted to maybe get back into it again. The musical that was auditioning had a kid part and she was like ‘Oooh! Kristin, will you come with me? I’m too nervous to go by myself.’ I was like, ‘Okay, sure!’ and that was kind of it. It was a college production of this show called ‘Working’ by Studs Terkel and I got to play a newspaper boy, and I don’t know, that was kind of it. I guess there was like an ‘aha moment’ but for me, it was always the most natural thing in the world. It was already a part of my upbringing with like listening to musicals in the car and hearing about my mom’s shows, and me wanting to do talent shows and dancing. It was just always a part of my life and so, for me, I was very lucky where it’s not like everyone in my family was doing something so different that I was like a black sheep and I was like ‘I’m going to be an actress!’ and they were like ‘No, don’t do it, you’ll be broke forever!’ Luckily, they were like ‘Yeah, that sounds great. You should totally do that,’ because they all loved it too.”

Do you have any advice for people who are may be interested in going into an arts field or are struggling to get into it?

“Oh gosh, you know what? It can just feel like hitting a brick wall with your fist over and over and over again but one day you will break through. It takes unbelievable stamina but as long as you are staying true to who you are…always be checking into who you are and what makes you, you, what makes you unique, and your light and your artistry will always shine through and eventually, you’ll break through into what you’ve always wanted. That’s what I had to tell myself.”

“The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” will be hosted by Blumenthal Performing Arts in the Knight Theater from Jan. 15 – 20. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here: https://www.carolinatix.org/events/detail/the-lightning-thief-the-percy-jackson-musical.

Craver Road, walk sign is on

“Craver Road, walk sign is on.” The electronic voice echoes in front of the Popp Martin Student Union, telling students when it is safe to cross the fairly busy street. Many people don’t seem to actually obey the sign, and jaywalking is pretty common. Despite this, the electronic voice of the walk sign remains persistent, dedicated to protecting the student population from cars and Niner Transit buses. Due to its location at the heart of campus, most students can testify to hearing the walk sign multiple times a day. It has become a part of the campus culture, an inside joke between students. “Craver Road Remix” was simply a natural extension.

The song, posted on SoundCloud in the spring of 2017, takes the walk sign’s key phrase and remixes it into electronic trap music. It quickly spread around campus and integrated itself into the UNC Charlotte mythology. However, the musical artist behind it remained a mystery. For over a year, it was the only song on a SoundCloud account with the username “Just Johnny.” The account’s profile picture is simply a photo of the Craver Road walk sign with fire emojis over it. But now, Johnny is willing to go semi-public. On the condition that only his first name is used and no photos show his face, he agrees to an interview at Peet’s Coffee in Atkins Library, where he answers questions about the song and about himself.

When Johnny talks about it, he almost makes it sound inevitable, like it was something he always knew he was going to do. His friends made jokes about the sign every time they walked by (which, living in North Village, was a minimum of three times a day). They’d often say, “Oh, someone needs to make a song out of that.” So at some point, he actually records the sign’s key phrase on his phone. Due to course load, nothing really comes of it at first. Until he gets sick. And it’s spring break.

Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Stuck at home with an endless amount of time, “Craver Road Remix” is created in only two hours. It is the epitome of a do-it-yourself endeavor, created using Johnny’s own personal Mac, a cheap “digital audio workstation” called Studio One and synthesizers and samples mostly bought online from Native Instruments. When asked about the process of creating the song, he struggles to describe it. His first step is simply to throw the Craver Road hook into the software and decide what direction to take it in. Since the goal is to appeal to as many college students as possible, he chooses to take it in the direction of EDM and trap music. This is out of the ordinary for him, as his own personal style is quite different.

From there, he creates a beat out of various drum sounds and decided on some chords, despite the fact there is actually very little chord use in the song. He just wants to find a musical key. Once those basics are set, he loses track. He zones out. The rest of the music making process is complete “chaos” as he “doesn’t really work in a linear fashion.” How does he know when it’s done then? Quite frankly: when it doesn’t sound terrible and when it hits the two minute, 30-second mark. This isn’t like his more serious music, and it goes much faster than normal.

However, despite its quick creation process, Johnny waits to post it on SoundCloud until he’s back at school. It is posted late at night on a weekday; his friends enjoy it and he goes to bed. The next morning, the number of listens is already at 100 people. He was expecting maybe 20 total. In class, people who don’t know he made it are talking about the song. They approach him, excited and amused, and ask, “Hey man, have you heard this thing?” The only appropriate response at the time seems to be, “Yeah, I made that.”

Eventually, though, Johnny stops telling people. For several weeks, the number of listens on Soundcloud continues to grow. Random people he knows spread it around without any clue that they know the creator. Johnny enjoys basking in the anonymity; enjoys hearing it played around him by people who don’t know it’s his own music. Yes, maybe his friends and roommates know, or the few people he told when caught by surprise during the first couple days of its popularity. But he never intended for it to be connected to him. It’s obvious just by looking at the song and SoundCloud account itself. There is absolutely nothing on there that would lead you back to him, beyond a first name and a description stating that he attends UNC Charlotte.

The most interesting questions then shift from simple ones about production and music to questions about Johnny himself. Why was the song created anonymously? And more importantly, who is Johnny, really? When asked about the first question, he tries to explain it. “One of the draws of music production is [that] the anonymity is amazing to me…for example, [take] someone like Ariana Grande, where she’s singing and everything. But who is, like, the producer behind it? I’ve always been more interested in those people. Just because I find that part of the process more relatable…” But over the course of an interview, a new hypothesis develops. Johnny is someone with multiple personas at once, struggling to balance at least the two major ones. On one hand, he’s a computer science student from a small town in North Carolina. On the other, he’s an indie music artist working on finding his own sound and breaking into the music scene. Adding some other persona, one known around campus for the parody song “Craver Road Remix,” might be too much. Furthermore, it may detract from the more serious image he is trying to cultivate through those other endeavors.

Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Johnny grew up in the ultra-suburban city of Gastonia, North Carolina. The town likes to think of itself as a suburb of Charlotte, though Charlotteans would probably prefer not to consider it one. It consists of a downtown that has been “revitalizing” for years, an ever-expanding road of department stores, and an intersection with a Mattress Firm on each corner. There’s not a ton to do there, especially for teenagers, and Johnny suspects that might be why he was such an indoor kid. He spent his childhood listening to music and playing video games, both of which were also a family endeavor. He gets excited when talking about his family’s early entry into “World of Warcraft,” though he was too young to understand it at the time. A continuing love for video games caused him to decide relatively early on that he wanted to study computer science; whatever it took to get him designing games.

Doing everything he could to get out of Gastonia and into a great academic program, Johnny originally applied to NC State for computer science. After a rejection letter, he found UNC Charlotte’s computer science program. He’s since fallen in love with the school and program, and can’t really imagine leaving the University. The idea of being in such a high-tech industry, of “working in the future,” seems incredibly exciting. However, Johnny’s original love for video games has changed directions. It’s now a side hobby, and his concentration shifted to cybersecurity. The decision was mostly a practical move; it feels safer and more secure than something like game design. There is also another important factor though: he wants it to fund his music and creative endeavors. In fact, he’d leave computer science behind to focus on completely music if he were to achieve success there. Thus, the computer science side is intrinsically linked to his other persona, one focused on music production.

Johnny has no real musical training beyond some simple drum lessons in elementary school. He never played an instrument or joined a high school band. Yet, he grew up surrounded by music and significant musical influences. He distinctly remembers listening to classic rock with his family, specifically the works of Queen and Fleetwood Mac. However, his two older brothers may have played an even bigger role. As a kid, Johnny often mirrored them and picked up their interests. While he eventually became his own person, they still have very close relationships. He credits one of them with introducing him to the band Tool, which led him down a path of “weird, experimental” musical influences.

Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

He started actually making his own music in high school after stumbling across some computer software for it around the age of 15. From there, Johnny states that his sound has gone through three pretty distinct periods. The first he classifies as “long, ambient and electronic” sounding. Other adjectives he included were “weird” and “odd.” According to him, “It was just easier to do as someone who had no idea what they were doing.” By senior year of high school, he’d moved to a more disco and dance inspired sound. It had a more cohesive and recognizable song format and was largely influenced by the music of the ’70s and the more-modern band Daft Punk. Today, Johnny feels pretty confident that he’s finally found his own unique sound. It takes elements of both prior phases and throws some EDM and electronic elements into the mix. His official description: “Electronic music with a slight dance flair that is weird.”

Unfortunately, it can’t really be found anywhere online. This is a sharp contrast to “Craver Road Remix,” which can be found quickly via a Google search. Part of this is a question of location. While Johnny initially had another SoundCloud account for his personal music, he began to question if it was really the right place for it. As SoundCloud generally seems to be aimed more at rappers these days, he took down his original work. Thus, while “Craver Road Remix” continues to draw in listeners, the music he is most proud of can’t be listened to anywhere. Eventually, he’d like to make it available on Spotify or iTunes. He doubts its ability “to be super popular, just because it is very experimental and strange…” Still, he believes there’s an audience for it, “like some subculture of niche music snobs.”

People all cultivate images of themselves. In this day and age, it is both a coping strategy and a necessary tool to navigate the increasingly online world young people inhabit. Johnny has two of these images, or at least it looks like that at first. That isn’t that unusual. He’s a professional, academic-focused computer science student. He’s also a young musical artist who would give everything up if he knew his music could be successful. However, those two sides ultimately have the same roots. A love of music and a need for creative expression combined with a fear of failure and a need for job security. Yet, behind all of that, there’s also an anonymous song floating around cyberspace, continuing to pick up listeners on a daily basis. It is Johnny’s most popular song and a bit of a campus sensation, despite the fact it’s not a work he’s entirely proud of. “I’m still kind of accepting the fact that this song, based on the Internet and the archives of things, is going to outlive me,” he says, surrounded by the smell of Peet’s coffee and the sound of Atkins Library’s radio mix. “I’m going to be outlived by a parody song that I made in two hours, which is both inspiring and terrifying at the same time.”

You can listen to Johnny’s top ten playlist, comprised of his many musical influences, here:

Three Bone Theatre’s ‘ The Daffodil Girls’ highlights women in theater

Kerstin Vanhuss was sick of it. Sick of trying out for school productions again and again, working to earn one of the three roles for women. Meanwhile, the script had room for 10 men. Why were there so little roles for women when they dominated the enrollment of the theatre department? Frustrated, she and two fellow students at Appalachian State University decided they’d had enough. Branching out on their own, the three founded a new theatre troupe with the goal of producing women-only productions. While the group eventually decided to focus more on choosing playwrights who were women, it still provided a space for women and minorities to find the roles they’d been desperately vying for. Years later, it continues under the name WITT, the Women’s and Inclusive Theatre Troupe.

Only a few years post-graduation, Vanhuss is in a woman-dominated cast yet again in Three Bone Theatre’s production of “The Daffodil Girls” where she plays the main character Shelly. The play, an adapted version of the Tony-winning play by David Mamet, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” follows the story of a hardcore version of the Girl Scouts known as The Daffodil Girls, where they are pushed to sell cookies in order to keep their troop alive. The wit is biting, the insults hurt and the play feels more intense than it has any right to be.

Three Bone Theatre is a local nonprofit theater company. It was founded in 2012 and specializes in “adult contemporary theatre.” In the past, it has been drawn to works that wrestle with relevant and sometimes difficult ideas, such as “Fahrenheit 451” and “Motherhood Out Loud.” There is also a civic engagement element as the company works with community partners for each production. For “The Daffodil Girls,” Three Bone is partnering with the nonprofit Girls Rock Charlotte, an organization founded by UNC Charlotte professor Kelly Finley that aims to empower girls through rock music.

One of the reasons that “The Daffodil Girls” is so interesting is because it takes what is typically a story centered around men and centers it around women. Specifically, it centers it around young girls. Here, it is not the men who are the powerful and greedy corporate stereotypes. Instead, it is the girls that are deceitful and mean. They’re power hungry. They will do anything it takes to get ahead. This depiction of girls and women is incredibly rare in any media form, where they are seldom showcased in leadership roles at all, let alone allowed to be desperate for power and money. The show breaks these stereotypes and gives actresses the chance to flex those nuanced emotional muscles. Every role is a different complex and strong female character. While the characters’ ages range from five to 12, the entire cast is composed of adults; all are women. The creative team, with the exception of the excellent lighting, set and sound design (Ryan Maloney and Benjamin Stickels), mirrors this as well.

According to Director Amanda Liles, this isn’t typical of theater productions. She stated, “You’ll find that the majority of artistic directors, the majority of executive directors are going to be men. And the majority of stage managers are men too…but it’s unusual to find, like, a production company where a majority of people are female, and I think that [what] is really interesting about Three Bone is that we have so many people in these power positions who are female, which is great.” Most all of the other production teams she has worked on have been male-dominated.

Does being involved in a woman-centric production team change anything? Based on interviews, the answer seems to be an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ However, the difference is hard to quantify. Liles references a more supportive and enthusiastic working environment (though she also says it may be more organized). Vanhuss, though clear about her preference for working in woman-dominated casts, found it hard to explain why. One of her reasons was that “…a lot of times, women get more committed because there are so little plays for us so we put a lot more work into it.” Another was a feeling of frankness; that “you can open up with your emotions a lot more.”

However, there are other larger reasons. Vanhuss recounted the story of one of her friends who was asked to lose 15 pounds for a role in a local college production. “I saw her not eat things sometimes and spend hours on a treadmill. For college theater,” she stated. She also indicated that’d she’d feel safer bringing up concerns to a woman director than a man, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Liles seconded the idea that theater isn’t immune to the reckoning of #MeToo. She said, “I know from friends and other people’s experiences that sometimes it can be icky. Like there can be people who are predatory or a little too touchy-feely or inappropriate at times in the theater community.”

But while Three Bone Theatre’s production of “The Daffodil Girls” may be an uplifting, safe and more collaborative experience behind the scenes, watching it is hard. It hurts to watch these young girls tear each other down and insult one another in the worst ways. It is painful to witness them tear each other apart, especially while wondering why their parents won’t listen or do anything to stop it. Yet, that’s the point. “The Daffodil Girls” wants to demonstrate just how cruel and hard being a young girl can be. It tells us that they can be mean to one another and that they still have valid problems, even if they are young. Director Amanda Liles emphasizes this as well. In her director’s note, she writes, “We need to do right by our young people. Love them, encourage them, advocate for them and inspire them to stand up for themselves and others.” Hopefully, “The Daffodil Girls” encourages audiences to do just that.

Featured photo by Click Witch Photography.

UNC Charlotte production of ‘Twelfth Night’ was fun, engaging and relevant

Jazz music filled the room, played by a small ensemble band incorporated into the backdrop of the set. On stage sat the body and mast of a large sailing ship, partially sunk into the floor. Beyond the boat, the stage was largely barren, decorated only by grey arches matching the color of the floor, some green vines and streetlights. “Twelfth Night,” UNCC’s second Department of Theatre production of the year, was about to start. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Shakespeare, which I blame on my odd middle school experience of volunteering at the Renaissance Festival for three years. It can also partially be attributed to the lovely web series “Nothing Much to Do” (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”) on YouTube. Thus, when I first heard that “Twelfth Night” would be performed this season, I was immediately excited. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. The audience was packed.

The plot of “Twelfth Night” centers on one of two twins, a woman named Viola (Amberlin McCormick). After the ship she is traveling on wrecks, she decides to disguise herself as a man to obtain work from Duke Orsino (Marcus Fitzpatrick). Orsino is desperately in love with a noblewoman, Olivia (Jacqueline Williams), who is in mourning nearby. The feeling is not mutual. When Orsino sends Viola — in disguise as the male Cesario — to convince Olivia of his love, Olivia instead falls for the disguised Viola. This is only further complicated by Viola’s feelings of love for Orsino and the romantic goals of two of Olivia’s other suitors, a knight named Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Michel) and Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Jack Murphy).  

However, there is another level at play here as the B-plot provides some of the funniest moments and characters. Olivia’s household members, such as her uncle Toby (Dylan Ireland), her right-hand woman Maria (Isabel Gonzalez) and her “fool” Feste (EJ Williams), continually pull off elaborate deceptions on those around them. When the play begins, the object of one such deception is Sir Andrew. Toby has convinced poor Andrew that the knight has the ability to marry Olivia, despite the fact this will never be the case. Toby is simply trying to get as much money from him as possible. Similarly, the group (now containing the duped Andrew) later conspires to convince Malvolio (with forged letters a là “Much Ado About Nothing”) that Olivia loves him. This is viewed as an act of revenge for Malvolio’s pretentious and condescending attitude, with the primary goal being to embarrass Malvolio and then drive him slowly mad.

Every member of the cast was strong, from the main characters to smaller roles. The star of the show was McCormick as Viola. This was a hard role and she really nailed it. She sold the internal emotional struggle, landed the physical humor and created solid romantic chemistry with two love interests. Her banter with Williams as Olivia was fun and engaging to watch. Olivia herself found the right level of slightly-pompous-but-still-relatable needed to create a bond with the audience. Fitzpatrick as Orsino completely sold the misguided love-sick nature of the part. However, I have numerous words to say about the ensemble of Olivia’s home. Williams’ Feste was absolutely incredible, balancing remarkably fast and witty lines with fun, jazzy vocal performances. Murphy as Malvolio played a great comedic “villain” and clearly had tons of fun doing so. The audience had just as much fun watching him. Michel as Sir Andrew really nailed the awkward dopiness of the part, embodying the stereotype of the lovable idiot (very similar to Maxwell Glick’s portrayal of Mr. Ricky Collins in “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”). He also excelled at physical comedy, which was seen throughout the play and highlighted in a failed swordfight.

Photos courtesy of Daniel Coston.

UNC Charlotte’s production of “Twelfth Night” was, by far, the best production I have ever seen in my time here. It was exceptionally well acted and had remarkable set and costume designs. Most importantly though, it completely connected with its audience. People gasped at unexpected turns, were invested in the love stories and spent huge portions of the play rolling in laughter. I have rarely seen that many people, especially young people, 1) so completely invested and interested in a play and 2) seen them this invested in Shakespeare. I’m pretty sure the girl in front of me laughed so hard she was crying. After talking with the director, Dr. Andrew Hartley, I went into this performance with admittedly high expectations. All of them were surpassed.

The question then becomes: why did this production connect so well with modern day audiences? My answer is three-fold. One, the play was reimagined in a format that allowed modern/new additions. The best example of this was a spontaneous musical rendition of “We Will Rock You” that put me at a complete loss for words (in a good way). Jazz music, modern dance moves and the contemporary feel of the production design also helped connect with the audience. Part two of what made it so special was the acting and line delivery. Oftentimes, Shakespeare’s writings can be associated with a feeling of stuffiness or thought of as too complicated to understand. The actors in UNCC’s production rise above that easily. The words didn’t feel like words from 400 years ago, they felt like the natural speech of the characters. They are filled with love, sarcasm, desperation and other human emotions. It almost never feels forced.

The third reason is that the play, despite its age, still wrestles with contemporary and relevant issues. “Twelfth Night’s” most obvious issue is gender, which is primarily explored as a limit to meaningful relationships. However, it also ties together gender and sexism. Orsino is unable to truly get to know Olivia because of how he (and the world around him) views women. She is just a romantic object to him and she knows that — and actively dislikes it. He builds a much more engaging and open relationship with Viola (as Cesario) because he treats her like he would a man. Further wrinkles emerge at the end of the play, in which Olivia marries Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian (Deandre Sanders). At the time of the marriage, Olivia believes Sebastian to be Viola’s male persona. However, when it is revealed that Viola is actually a woman and that Olivia has instead married Sebastian, she does not even seem particularly fazed. While Viola and Orsino both get their version of a happy ending, Olivia’s fate feels much more uncomfortable. She’s done the very thing she didn’t want to do with Orsino: marry a stranger.

This fall’s production of “Twelfth Night” was not only a highlight of UNCC theatre department productions, it was also one of the best Shakespeare performances I’ve come across to date. It had a stellar creative vision and succeeded in creating a strong and cohesive blend of set and costume design. The ensemble of college actors was absolutely incredible, taking on their roles with gusto and skill. The production felt modernized. It felt relevant. It had musical numbers and sword fights, love and comedy. What more could I possibly want in a play?

INTERVIEW: Director Dr. Andrew Hartley talks UNCC’s newest production, ‘Twelfth Night’

Shipwrecks. Love triangles. Gender-bending disguises. All of these can be found in UNCC’s newest production “Twelfth Night,” a romantic comedy written by Shakespeare. It is directed by UNCC faculty member Dr. Andrew Hartley. Dr. Hartley is the Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare Studies, an esteemed scholar of Shakespeare and an acclaimed and prolific novelist. Prior to the show’s opening night, I sat down with him to talk about the production, what goes into directing college students and the continued relevance of Shakespeare in today’s world.

You are directing “Twelfth Night” for UNCC this month. How would you pitch or describe the plot to college students who haven’t heard of the production before?

“The plot of the play hinges on mistaken identities and people being cast out into a place where they don’t live. But the core of the story is about love triangles [and] love relationships which are complicated by the fact that the people in them are not who they seem to be, and in one crucial case, one of the women is disguised as a man. I think the focal point of the story, in some way, is about exploring the difference between attraction and connection…One of the things I am running with is the idea that, in some ways, gender can get in the way of forming real, close friendships that can turn into deep personal relationships. Because certainly the Elizabethans (and to a certain extent, we) were raised with the idea that the opposite sex is foreign. Other. And that we have to change the way we behave around people of the opposite sex, especially if they are people that we are romantically interested in. Whereas, within the world of the play, the same-sex relationships are in some ways more honest. So the core relationship between Viola and Orsino is built while Orsino believes her to be a man. To me, that’s interesting.”

Out of Shakespeare’s very extensive body of work, do you have any insight into why the Theatre Department chose “Twelfth Night” specifically?

“Well, a couple of years ago we finished a six-year project which was called 36-in-6 in which we were basically doing something to do with every single play in the canon as we worked towards the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016. So we’ve done a lot of Shakespeare here over the last…I’ve been here, what? 14 years I think? And we’ve done a lot of Shakespeare since I’ve been here in one form or another. ‘Twelfth Night’ is not one that we have done as a main stage production (though we’ve done little workshoppy kind of things). Once we got out of the 36-in-6 thing, in which we felt there was a lot of pressure on us to do representative work across the whole body, we were then able to start saying, ‘You know, let’s do plays that we like; plays that feel like they have contemporary relevance and plays that are well-suited to an undergraduate cast.’ Unless you are doing a kind of deconstructive, postmodern production, I don’t see us doing ‘King Lear’ anytime soon. Our strength as a department is working with our students and we don’t have very many 80-year-old students. So ‘Twelfth Night’ is a play that works well with an undergraduate cast. It is one of my favorite of the middle comedies. We had ‘Measure for Measure’ on campus last year with Actors From London Stage, and the last Shakespeare we did was ‘Hamlet.’ So we’ve been clustered around the middle of Shakespeare’s career and I think this is one of the greatest and most successful comedies of that period. It is also a very musical play and one of the things I was really interested in was incorporating a lot of live music and building that into the fabric of the show; so this is a production that is set in a world that looks kind of like New Orleans and is contemporary and jazzy.”

From a directing standpoint, how do you go about approaching a show that is as well known as “Twelfth Night”?

“Well known is certainly in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? I mean I thought that back when we did ‘Hamlet’ and we were using the Q1 text (the earliest printed script), which is very different from the text that most people are familiar with, and I was anticipating all kinds of pushback because none of the famous lines were in the play. What I discovered in the process was that most people don’t actually know ‘Hamlet’ as much as they think they do, and I suspect that’s the same with ‘Twelfth Night.’ It’s one of those plays that some people know well and some people really love but I think, you know, because of the way our education system is structured at the moment, people come to university with surprisingly little hands-on knowledge of Shakespeare. Even when they have studied it in high school, frequently what that means is that they’ve seen a movie or they have read sort of ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ (where they are not actually reading Shakespeare most of the time). There’s not that much deep knowledge, with the exception of a couple of plays like ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘Macbeth,’ maybe ‘Hamlet’ and maybe ‘Julius Caesar.’ Not a lot else. So, you know, my sense is that people have a sort of vague sense of the place of these plays in culture but most people don’t know them all that well. And I’m not just talking about students, I think generally in the culture as a whole that the idea that large numbers of people are really familiar with Shakespeare hasn’t been true for a long time.”

UNCC production of “Twelfth Night.” Photo by Daniel Coston.

What about this production and interpretation of “Twelfth Night” makes it unique from other productions?

“So as I said, it has a very jazzy kind of feel…it’s not a real contemporary world. The clothes look mostly modern (but slightly stylized), there are no cell phones and some people carry swords. It’s got a contemporary vibe but has an eclectic, deliberately non-precise kind of location. As I was talking to the designers, I kept saying, ‘I want it to feel sort of like New Orleans and to have a lot of the things we associate with New Orleans, but I don’t want, like, Mardi Gras beads and Bourbon Street stuff. That’s not what I’m looking for.’ I want a general sort of coastal city vibe.

One of the things that I wanted to do from the outset, and I don’t know how well you know the play, but it begins with a shipwreck. But unlike “The Tempest,” it’s a shipwreck we don’t see. I’ve worked on this show professionally a couple of times before and we always sort of put focus on the romantic relationships. But one of the most important relationships in the play is the Viola/Sebastian relationship — the brother and sister relationship. In some ways, the huge payoff moment at the end is the reconciliation of brother and sister. I think modern audiences always struggle with that…it’s a very simple thing. They’ve never seen them on stage together before the end. One of the things that we wanted to do from the start was to stage the shipwreck, so you actually get to see that moment of separation, and because this is a Black Box show, it’s very small and very actor driven. Though it’s lush in terms of sound and music and color and so on, it is still small, and so we wanted to begin with one big production number; to sort of wake people up and say, “Boom, here it is!” and then go small and focus on the relationships.

I was looking at the cast….and I suspect this is the most diverse Shakespeare show we’ve ever done. I may be wrong. What interests me as an educator, as well as a director, is approaching something like Shakespeare, which people tend to think of as sort of vaguely respectable and sort of up on some pedestal somewhere, kind of irrelevant and out-of-reach, and what I want our cast to get out of this process (and what I want the audience to ultimately get out of it) is a sense of ownership; that we are separated by 400 years or more from this stuff and it doesn’t belong to anybody any more than it belongs to anybody else.”

Speaking of Shakespeare living and writing 400 years ago, why do you think we continue to find so much value in his work? Why is it still so widely read and performed, at least in the theatre community?

“I think there are two reasons. Partly, it is about the period in which he was writing, with the emergence of early modern theater from the 1570s to the 1620s. By the end of the 1620s, we are starting to see a separation of the different kinds of theaters. There are some theaters that are playing to the general public and some that are much more expensive, but in Shakespeare’s day, that’s not the case. He’s writing for a total cross-section of the population. At any given time in this time period, there are about seven functioning theaters in London. Each of those theaters holds about 3000 people. Population of London is only about 120,000, and those playhouses are functioning as commercial ventures every day except Sunday. So you do the math and a huge percentage of the population are going to the theater on a regular basis. Some of those people are day, itinerant laborers making as little as you can possibly make without being homeless and some of them are aristocracy. The theater is an actual cross-section of the population and that is not something you have very often, before or since. I don’t know that there is a modern equivalent. Maybe some sporting events? But those are not cultural events in the same way. One thing you know for certain, is that the people who are going to see ‘Hamilton’ are probably not the same people who are going to the Panthers game, and they certainly aren’t the same people who are going to the Monster Truck rally down the street. We have, particularly since the 19th century, an increasing separation between high and low culture in all aspects, whether that is books or TV or movies or whatever. In Shakespeare’s day, that wasn’t the case. So part of what makes him continue to work is that the plays were always designed to function on multiple levels. That’s point one.

UNCC production of “Twelfth Night.” Photo by Daniel Coston.

Point two is that Shakespeare, unlike most other writers, is himself invisible in the work. Whenever somebody says to me, ‘What does Shakespeare believe about x?’ You can’t say. You can say what certain characters say. Part of what makes Shakespeare himself is that he is always able to take every character intensely seriously, regardless of their moral status or their function in the story, and give them a plausible set of ideas. What Shakespeare agrees with is very, very difficult to say. That’s not the case with some of his contemporaries. Most of the time we want plays to feel like novels; we want that kind of authorial voice that tells us how we are supposed to read everybody in the play and what we are supposed to deduce. You don’t get that with Shakespeare. This means that every production of the play has the capacity to go in so many different directions.

For example, a play like ‘Henry V.’ Most of the time when it is staged today, it is like a sort of monument to anti-heroism and anti-war. 100 years ago, it was the opposite. It was the supreme patriotic, nationalist play. And it’s not that the play’s changed, but we have changed…The reason we keep coming back to Shakespeare is because Shakespeare is a mirror and we keep seeing ourselves, and the things that interest us now are not the same as the things that interested us 20 years ago or 50 years ago. In class now we spend a lot of time talking about gender politics and sexual identity. Did anyone talk about that in Shakespeare classes 40 years ago? The plays are amorphous and rich and complex, but they don’t insist on a single perspective.”

How do you approach the job of directing college students specifically as opposed to directing some other kind of production?

“The difference with working with professionals is that they have a different set of skill sets that they already know how to use. When you’re dealing with college actors, the rehearsal process is also a teaching process. In many cases, I’m working with actors who have never done Shakespeare before (which would almost never happen in a professional theater). Most of the time when directors are working with professionals, a lot of the key job is putting the right person in the right role and then getting out of the way. Student actors expect a lot more. Our rehearsal space is sometimes a transitional space. Different actors are going to be in different places and some are going to be much further along than others, but some will often want the director to do the work for them and tell them how to interpret, which is ultimately not the director’s job. You have to push them in certain directions and then say, “That’s on you.” So what I’m doing as a director and what Chris Berry, the acting and voice coach, is doing is trying to prepare them to do the work themselves and help them build the right skill set, to ask the right questions and to get them to analyze their lines. We’ll spend a little more time doing table work than professionals tend to where we sit around and talk about scenes. The shape of the process is sort of similar to professionals, but the emphasis is just different.”

“Twelfth Night” is playing in the Black Box Theater in Robinson Hall from Oct. 25-Oct. 28 and Oct. 31-Nov. 4. Tickets are $8 for students, $10 for seniors and active military and veterans, $12 for UNCC faculty, staff and alumni and $18 for general admission. They can be purchased online at: http://unccboxoffice.universitytickets.com/user_pages/event_listings.asp.

Correction: The article originally stated that the theaters in Shakespeare’s day held 300 people; this number is actually 3000.

Indie band COIN performs concert at The Underground

Since the age of 13 — the age at which my mother finally allowed me to create a Facebook account — my online life has been curated by an increasingly present series of algorithms. I have no idea what actually goes into creating them, but I do know the power they have. They determine what I see on the internet, both curating my personal news feed and the ads I am most likely to click on. Most of the time, “the algorithm” feels like some omnipresent force, one with confusing and menacing intentions. They are part of the reason political experts talk about “echo chambers” online, as these algorithms tend to reflect back things and viewpoints we are already interested in and agree with. However, sometimes the algorithm chooses what music I listen to, such as when it decided to mix the band COIN’s songs into my recommended Spotify playlists. I found them to be a solid listen, especially when I needed to stay awake late at night doing schoolwork. When I found out that the band would be performing at The Underground on Oct. 19, I decided it was time to actually hear them in person.

The opener for the night was the indie band Arlie, though their performance did not seem to have been well promoted ahead of time. Listings of the concert online only mentioned COIN, though Arlie could eventually be found on some ticket vendor’s websites. Despite this, the crowd was packed with adoring fans, one of whom brought an entire package of Oreos for a band member’s birthday. In fact, Arlie didn’t really feel like an opening band at all, but a band with as many fans at the venue as COIN. The level of fan dedication was extremely impressive for a band that is relatively new on the music scene. Their debut EP “Wait” was released as recently as Sept. 2018. The band, composed of members Nathaniel Banks (vocals, guitar), Carson Lystad (guitar) and Adam Lochemes (drums), is also fairly young. All are recent graduates of Vanderbilt University.

Performance wise, the band has a confident and fun stage persona. For such a young band, they seem incredibly comfortable on stage. They also have a signature look, of which bright-colored and vintage-inspired clothing seemed to be the theme. Purple and pink stage lights remained pretty constant throughout their set. Their music, somewhere between rock, pop-punk and alternative, was quite catchy and extremely successful at engaging the audience. A favorite of the night was their song “big fat mouth.” Though I was unfamiliar with them ahead of time, the set definitely warranted a second listen.

 COIN and Arlie. Photos by Pooja Pasupula.

COIN took to the stage relatively soon after, immediately showcasing a much stronger technical set. Lights flashed, smoke poured in and strobing effects were utilized. Silhouettes were a popular light motif. Lead singer Chase Lawrence had an infectious energy, dancing and moving along with the music. He often talked to the audience about how special the night was and stated that the band had not played a show in the United States for “too long.” He also indicated that COIN would need to come to Charlotte more often, though it is possible that this is something he says about all of the places the band visits. COIN’s other members, Ryan Winnen (drums) and Joe Memmel (guitar), were placed on either side of Lawrence. While they were fundamental in making the music and keeping the energy alive, Lawrence dominated the performance.

The band, though more established than Arlie, is still a fairly new addition to the music scene. Their 2015 debut album, the self-titled “COIN,” and 2017 follow up, “How Will You Know If You Never Try,” were both featured on the night’s setlist. Falling somewhere between indie pop and modern rock, the band kept concertgoers enthralled and dancing. My personal favorites of the night included “Run,” “Malibu 1992,” “I Don’t Wanna Dance” and “Talk Too Much.” Hearing them played live as opposed to on my Spotify playlist brought them to life and made them feel more high energy. The fact that the floor seemed to vibrate under my feet from the bass might also have been a contributing factor. However, I also found that many of the other songs seemed to sound the same. They rarely seem to push the genre, and while fun, I would have appreciated a bit more variety and depth.

With so much negative (and warranted) discussion of it on news and social media platforms, sometimes I forget that “the algorithm” can be a good thing. It is, ideally, supposed to help me find content I am uniquely interested in. Three of the books I physically bought this year are by authors I found and follow on Twitter. And in the case of COIN, a band I only found out about because it was in my Spotify “Daily Mix,” it seems the algorithm has succeeded once more. While COIN isn’t my favorite band, it adds to the list of musicians and songs I like and was a solid and fun concert experience. It is proof that sometimes, in an online world that can be both concerning and hopeful, the algorithm can get it right.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is a compelling mystery with a heart

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the plot of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

I first saw “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” during its national tour stop in Charlotte in February 2017. I sat in awe for the entire production, struck by both its story and the incredibly unique way the play sought to tell it through staging and special effects. It was emotionally compelling and visually immersive; I talked about it nonstop for the rest of the evening. Thus, when I walked into the Hadley Theater for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production, I was both nervous and excited to see how it would be transformed by this local professional theatre.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is based off the bestselling 2003 novel of the same name and was first translated into a play via a run in London in 2012. The West End production went on to win seven Olivier awards, while the Broadway transfer won five Tonys. It has largely been hailed as a triumph for excellence in casting, staging and special effects. “Curious Incident” tells the story of a boy named Christopher (Chester Shepard), who the author described as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties,” but has largely been interpreted by audiences to represent someone on the autism spectrum. It details his attempt to solve the murder of his next-door neighbor’s dog, Wellington, which results in the uncovering of family secrets, a solo adventure to London and a stressful A level examination. The play is self-aware, acknowledging that it is currently being performed on stage, and is narrated by Christopher’s teacher and mentor Siobhan (Megan Montgomery).

Chester Shepard as Christopher Boone. Photo courtesy of Fenix Fotography.

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte is a professional theatre company that is currently in the midst of its 30th season. After losing their home theater due to leasing issues, the company secured its survival by becoming the resident theatre company at Queens University of Charlotte. A triumph for the local theatre scene, this means ATC is now housed in the Hadley Theater, which is actually located in an elementary school. It’s a little disconcerting to walk into an elementary school hallway, one littered with artwork and jump rope awards, to see a show as technically advanced as this one. However, the Hadley Theater defies one’s expectations immediately upon entering and is a perfect new home for ATC.

The set is incredible. The boxlike, mostly-barren look is clearly inspired by the original, but is condensed and translated for a smaller and more intimate performance space. Using the cast and a small number of chairs, a table and other props, it is able to quickly transform into various spaces and scenes. It also takes advantage of a highly inventive and skilled technical crew. Projectors and lights are used to visually illustrate Christopher’s dreams as well as feelings of overstimulation. Loud sounds and physical choreography are also used to draw the audience into Christopher’s world. These are most on display in scenes where Christopher is panicking, such as one in which the entire stage flashes red and the score picks up. However, it is also used in more reflective parts of the show, such as when Christopher dreams of going to space or when illustrating the math problems he solves during his A level. This production design wants the audience to (at least try to) understand what the world looks and feels like to Christopher, and presents the world as he sees it. It is an absolutely impressive work of technical theater; this alone could set the play apart.

However, “Curious Incident” doesn’t need to rely on the technical aspect alone. It is in the hands of a strong and talented group of actors. Shepard plays the role of Christopher with grace and understanding, portraying his character as the full human being he is and not just focusing on what sets him apart. He does a great job of opening up Christopher’s way of seeing the world to the audience. Christopher’s relationship with Siobhan also takes center stage throughout the play, which means it is a fantastic thing that Shepard and Montgomery are able to play so well off of each other. Montgomery often lightens the mood with her narration and utter delight at Christopher’s writing while Christopher takes the audience back to the play at hand. It is a partnership that feels believable. However, while Shepard impresses in his starring role as Christopher, it truly feels like an ensemble production. In fact, I was most blown away by Christopher’s parents (Rob Addison and Becca Worthington). They paint his parents’ flaws strongly and clearly but also with an overarching feeling of empathy and compassion. There are many points within the show where you can see the hurt they’ve caused and feel righteously angry, only to be drawn back into their lives and connect to them again. It is a moving and powerful performance. Shawna Pledger as Mrs. Alexander also delivers a strong comedic turn in an emotionally-heavy play.

Photo courtesy of Fenix Fotography.

Despite the play’s widespread success, it has not gone without criticism, especially from those within the autism and Asperger’s communities. Christopher, and the characters around him, never explicitly state what his diagnosis is (or if he has one). However, the novel/play has largely been hailed for its depiction of neurodivergent people and originally included the word “Asperger’s” on the back cover. This has led to both support and criticism from autism and Asperger’s advocates, which have especially criticized the novel’s author (Mark Haddon) for his own admitted lack of research into the subject and the play for not casting neurodivergent people as Christopher. Haddon has since distanced himself from an official diagnosis, stating that he is not an expert on the subject and that an official label would take away from the story. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte seems to be more aware of these concerns and has partnered with Southeast Psychology for this production. In a promotional video, they urge audience members to “read, search, and learn” about Christopher’s “neuro-tribe.” They are also offering a sensory-friendly performance on Oct. 27.

While the program for the show includes a quote stating that “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is “a story about difference,” I’d argue that it is also a show that celebrates and embraces family. It functions as a portrait not only of Christopher, but of the individuals around him that create his world. This includes his parents, Siobhan and his lonely neighbor Mrs. Alexander. All of them — with the exception of Mr. Shears (Jeremy Decarlos) — are treated with respect and understanding. Especially in regards to Christopher’s parents, the show recognizes their flaws and (serious) mistakes, yet still finds room for forgiveness and a path to redemption. This capacity for forgiveness hits the other major theme: one of hope. It is a guiding thesis here, underscored by Christopher’s final line, asking if he can do anything. It is so hopeful it hurts, because the audience knows that there are unfair societal limitations on Christopher. But for now, Christopher and his family are working on fixing things together. He has his family in the same city, a dog, two more A levels to take and a dream of becoming an astronaut. He is in a good and hopeful place, and I’m happy to exist there with him.

‘Archipelago’ is an Exploration of Loneliness and Love Stories

Photo by Daniel Coston.

Two individuals, a man and a woman, keep running into each other in unexpected places. They dated as young adults, but that was years ago. However, when they do stumble into one another, the connection seems instant. They transform into their past selves and almost immediately are drawn to one another. This seems to occur continuously as the couple is then torn apart by personality clashes, work and war. In any other context, this would be a grand romance story. Adding a grand finale in an airport would make it a rom-com. But “Archipelago” is not that simple.

“Archipelago” is a play by UNC Charlotte theater alum and OBIE Award Winner Caridad Svich. This September, it was used to open UNCC’s theater season, though a majority of the performances were canceled due to Hurricane Florence. Thus, it was only performed on Sept. 12 and Sept. 18. The play and casting were interesting choices for UNC Charlotte, as the work consists of only two performers. Both were UNC Charlotte theater professors, Carlos Alexis Cruz and Kaja Dunn. I appreciated that “Archipelago” was a chance to showcase, challenge and expand their skills and put UNC Charlotte theater faculty in the spotlight in a way they traditionally are not. However, I don’t think it was entirely necessary for the play to be faculty-led. While it is an intricate and complex play to perform, our theater students are capable.

The aforementioned plot of “Archipelago” follows a couple, who goes unnamed until the last section of dialogue, that consistently meet and fall for one another. While the play’s timeline travels in circles, often incorporating flashbacks and reflective monologues, the story of their relationship slowly becomes apparent. They met when they were young (just how young they were is unclear) and became a free-spirited, traveling and homeless couple. However, following a fight at a store, Hannah (Kaja Dunn) leaves. The two later unintentionally meet in Ben’s (Carlos Alexis Cruz) home country, an unspecified war-torn place in the desert where Hannah seeks a sense of purpose and escape from her daily life. After Ben is injured and enters a seemingly-endless coma, Hannah travels back to her home in the city. The two meet twice more before the play ends.

Dunn and Cruz do an excellent job of centering and grounding the play. It is a lengthy work with no intermission, the dialogue is complicated and the plot evokes a wide range of emotions. The two’s chemistry is undeniable and compelling to watch. Dunn and Cruz also complement each other well and bring different talents to the table. While both are great acting work, Dunn seems to take on the emotional heavy lifting. She oftentimes performed whole scenes and monologues on an emotional edge, looking like she could burst into tears at any moment. Meanwhile, Cruz thrives in the physicality of the piece. At one point, the play ceases to use words and instead uses dance, physical staging and choreography on aerial silks to illustrate and tell the story. Cruz’ background in dance and circus arts really shines here and likely influenced the choice to use aerial silks in the first place.

Photo by Daniel Coston.

The play evokes an overwhelming sense of loneliness, only underlined by the mostly-empty set design and the muted colors of the costumes. Large screens that could be illuminated, an archway and a table were the only physical set pieces. The screens caused the space to feel smaller and pushed the performance into a more enclosed and intimate setting. When illuminated, they allowed the performers to utilize various shadows to move the story forward. The script itself transcends time and place by giving very little description of where the actions occur and omitting the character’s names until the final scene. “Archipelago” could take place anywhere between any two people. It underscores how truly singular the human existence is, making the argument that we may never be able to truly understand another person.

For example, despite the fact the couple has known one another for a long period of time, both parties express that they don’t feel like they really know the other. Hannah wonders aloud how she never knew where Ben was from. They both question if their “happy” memories of traveling together as young adults were truly moments of genuine happiness or if the two were actually just desperate for connection and escapism.

It begs the question, should these two really be together? Is the tale told in “Archipelago” a grand love story, proving that despite all their struggles and problems, Ben and Hannah’s love (and possibly their fate) means they should be together? The two could be emblematic of a solution to the play’s emptiness. Maybe we are all broken and unable to understand one another, but at least Ben and Hannah are trying to together.  Or are the two simply enacting some grand love-story narrative because they are unable to move on and desperate to capture nostalgic memories of their youth? If I had been friends with either of the characters and they’d come to me for relationship advice, I would have told them to stay away from such an unhealthy relationship. However, the play doesn’t answer that question, instead deciding to leave it open to interpretation. This makes the ending of “Archipelago” slightly unsettling. The couple is finally together, but should they be?

‘Love Never Dies’ Really Needs To

WARNING: This review contains major spoilers for the plot of “Love Never Dies.”

I love musical theater. This has been the status quo of my life for as long as I can remember. I seriously cannot even tell you what the first musical I ever saw was. This makes it hard to dislike shows (though I definitely have favorites). Even now, despite the fact I have been the Niner Times’ theater critic for two years, I sincerely struggle to give a truly negative review of a musical. I can always find redeeming characteristics and appreciate the opportunity to have a night at the theater, regardless of what the show actually is. These positive qualities typically outweigh the bad in my memory of the show. However, it seems I have met my match in the form of “Love Never Dies,” a musical which completed a National Tour stop at the Belk Theater from Sept. 11 – 16. It is, quite possibly, the worst musical I have ever experienced. I am absolutely baffled by its existence; how on earth did this monstrosity of a musical get past so many people? There are so many points in which someone, literally anyone, should have said “no.”

Let’s start, for instance, with the absolutely insane plot. “Love Never Dies” is the sequel piece to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic “Phantom of the Opera.” Quite frankly, this fact alone sets the musical up for failure, as trying to live up to the longest-running musical in Broadway history is an impossible feat. However, despite the fact “Love Never Dies” is a true sequel, it completely disregards the entirety of the original musical. It has the same characters, but in name only. In this version, The Phantom (Bronson Norris Murphy) is a far more romantic figure — all the murders he committed in the previous musical conveniently forgotten — who longs to hear Christine Daaé (Meghan Picerno) sing again. He’s spent the last ten years living at Coney Island, where he owns a sideshow/amusement park called Phantasma with the help of Madame Giry (Karen Mason) and her daughter, Meg (Mary Michael Patterson). When Christine arrives in New York City to sing for the opening of Oscar Hammerstein II’s new American opera house, The Phantom sends his henchmen to abduct her and her family.

Family-wise, Christine’s love Raoul (Sean Thompson) is now a man with a deep drinking problem who rarely talks to or spends time with his wife. They also have a son together, Gustave (Christian Harmston/Jake Heston Miller). When Raoul leaves Christine alone to get a drink, The Phantom appears. Christine confronts him and is angry he faked his own death, while also implying that he was the love of her life. The Phantom offers to double the amount of money Hammerstein’s opera is paying her to sing and then threatens her child if she refuses to perform. However, when The Phantom spends time with the musically-inclined Gustave at the end of the first act (accompanied by a wild rock number that appears out of nowhere), he realizes that Gustave is his son.

Bronson Norris Murphy as The Phantom and Jake Heston Miller as Gustave. Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you think “Love Never Dies” can’t possibly get any crazier than that, you’d be wrong. It was at this point in the show that I completely dropped any semblance of viewing this as a work of art. I was just there to see where the story could possibly go, which is a much more enjoyable and fun way to frame this piece. Most of act two is largely unimportant, as Raoul and The Phantom battle over Christine’s affections without ever asking her which of the two she’d prefer. In the end, she chooses to sing for The Phantom, which results in her kissing the man in her dressing room before realizing her son has disappeared.

It turns out that Meg has been desperately working to achieve The Phantom’s attention in her role as the star “Ooh La La Girl” in his Coney Island vaudeville show. Upon realizing that, despite these efforts, he’d give the show/Phantasma to Christine and Gustave, she attempts to push Gustave off of a pier and into the ocean. While she is eventually talked down from murdering a child, she then pulls a gun out of her dress in an attempt to commit suicide. The Phantom decides to wrestle her for the gun and the resulting scuffle causes the gun to fire. The bullet hits Christine. She dies in The Phantom’s arms, using her last breaths to tell Gustave that The Phantom is his true father. Raoul appears out of nowhere to cradle her dead body. The musical then ends with Gustave reaching out to remove The Phantom’s mask and give him a hug. The people behind me started laughing.

The plot alone results in so many questions. Did everyone on the creative team forget what happens in the original “Phantom of the Opera?” Does The Phantom write the songs used in Phantasma’s sideshow and, if so, do you mean to tell me the genius opera singer wrote something called “Bathing Beauty?” When did Christine and The Phantom ever conceive a child? Most importantly, who is raising that poor kid now? Are The Phantom and Raoul….co-parenting?

Bronson Norris Murphy as The Phantom and Meghan Picerno as Christine Daaé. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Frustratingly, “Love Never Dies” really has no excuse to be this bad. It is not completely separate from “The Phantom of the Opera” and retains Andrew Lloyd Webber as a composer, orchestrator and contributor to the book. While Webber is the only member of the creative team that worked on the original, new additions Glenn Slater and Ben Elton also both have prior illustrious theater credits (though Frederick Forsyth does not). With Webber on board, at the very least, the music should be more memorable than it is. It isn’t terrible but feels overwhelmingly boring and familiar. Only the quartet number “Dear Old Friend” stands out, both during the show and in hindsight. Even worse, the version of the show that played in Charlotte is actually already rewritten. The musical’s original plot and staging in London received such poor reviews that huge portions were revisited and changed for the Australian premiere in 2011. It is this version that is currently on display for the North American tour.

Still, I must say that the show is not all bad. The set design here is incredible and truly beautiful to look at. The metal atmosphere creates just-the-right level of creepiness for a 1900s Coney Island sideshow and transforms easily to build new shapes and locations. It only becomes more impressive when its lights turn on. The costumes and props are just as intricate, from Christine’s dazzling dresses to a coach that mysteriously moves without horses to a giant skeleton dinosaur. Both of these aspects are credited to Gabriela Tylesova, who clearly has skill and a vision.

The performances here are solid as well, though they are drowned by the lack of cohesive plot and generally lackluster songs. Picerno works hard to make Christine’s ever-changing emotions believable and nails her leading solo, the title song “Love Never Dies.” Mason as Madame Giry sincerely looks like she’s enjoying herself playing the vaguely intimidating noblewoman while Patterson throws herself wholeheartedly into Meg’s vaudeville numbers.  Murphy and Thompson (The Phantom and Raoul respectively) do the best with what they’ve been given. Quite honestly, the best performance here goes to Jake Heston Miller as Gustave. He can sing like an angel and is a great child actor. I sincerely hope he can use this musical as a way to continue to break into the theater industry.

It truly takes a lot for me to be as frustrated with a musical as I am with “Love Never Dies.” From a contrived story that makes no sense as a sequel or stand-alone piece to unmemorable musical numbers, it fails on almost every level. Its only saving graces, the production design and the performances of its actors, are completely overshadowed by the inane plot. It honestly feels as if someone paid an enormous sum of money to get the best sets and costumes possible and then hired actors to put on a performance of their “Phantom of the Opera” fanfiction. To date, “Love Never Dies” still hasn’t premiered on Broadway. It is easy to see why.

‘Off to the Races’ with Jukebox the Ghost

Photo by Shervin Lainez. Courtesy of artist.

Maybe I’m odd, but I distinctly connect music with specific time periods and memories in my life. ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” conjures up memories of riding with my carpool on the way to elementary school with my mom as the driver. “Low” by Flo Rida and T-Pain was the soundtrack of middle school outings to the skating rink. More recently though, Jukebox the Ghost’s album “Off to the Races” formed the soundtrack of my entire spring semester, one I spent abroad in London. I listened to the album constantly, in order and on repeat. Listening to it now immediately connects me to memories of red buses, the Kingston University library and seeing shows on the West End. However, you can only listen to an album and group so many times before you desperately want to go to their concert. On Sept. 11, I did just that and traveled with a friend to the Neighborhood Theatre for Jukebox the Ghost’s Off to the Races Tour.

I rarely go to concerts, typically because I only seem to discover artists immediately after they’ve traveled to Charlotte. Thus, this was my first trek to the Neighborhood Theatre, and also my first experience with a standing-room-only concert venue. I loved the location. Firstly, it was only a four-minute walk from the 36th Street light rail stop. The stop is the closest to Charlotte’s North Davidson Historical Arts District (or as it is more popularly known, NoDa), in which the Theatre resides. Both this location and the Theatre’s history as a converted movie theater from the 1940s give it character and make the venue unique. It was fairly empty when we arrived which meant my friend and I were able to stand incredibly close to the stage.

The opening band for the night was The Greeting Committee, an indie rock band comprised of four high school friends. Initially launched into the music scene with their EP “It’s Not All That Bad,” the band plans to release their debut album in October. The standout was lead singer Addie Sartino who had definite stage presence and looked at home performing there. While I did like their music, it just wasn’t music I think I’d feel the need to hear in concert again. However, I’d be happy to listen to it on Spotify while doing homework. It is hard to believe it comes from a band this young. Unfortunately, the group also suffered from the fact their set went on for too long. The venue continued to fill and it seemed the audience was ready to see the headlining band.

When Jukebox the Ghost took to the stage, I’m pretty sure my heart stopped beating. It is an out-of-body experience to hear songs you’ve listened to on your phone 100 times performed live. Jukebox the Ghost considers itself a piano rock band and consists of three members, pianist/vocalist Ben Thornewill, guitarist/vocalist Tommy Siegel and drum player/vocalist Jesse Kristin. They had the difficult task of deciding on a setlist from twelve years of making music together, which has resulted in six albums. However, a majority of the songs performed were from their newest album “Off to the Races.” Of the ten songs on that album, only two weren’t a part of the setlist. Songs from their self-titled “Jukebox the Ghost” album, “Safe Travels” and “Let Live & Let Ghosts” were also performed.

Due to Jukebox’s long history, it felt almost impossible to know every song. However, the band has such an incredible stage persona that it really didn’t matter if the audience knew the words or not. One of the best things about witnessing the band live was realizing how versatile its members are. Thornewill and Siegel would typically switch roles as lead vocalist depending on the song. At one point, Thornewill ditched his piano to grab a keytar and jump into the audience. It was also breathtaking to witness the band go from slower power ballads to intense pop songs. One moment, the audience would stop to listen to the words and emotion connected with a song. At another, the audience would jump up and down and scream the words. I danced. I stared in wonderment. My ears rang for forty minutes after I left.

Music wise, “Off to the Races” demonstrates a strong influence from the band Queen. This is especially apparent in songs such as “Jumpstarted” and “Everybody’s Lonely.” It was interesting to see how the band pulled off playing such songs in concert as the recordings rely on the overlaying of a number of vocal tracks. The group used a couple of different tactics to simulate this, including singing into a megaphone, asking the audience to choose a voice part and computer technology. At other times, a device was used that would repeat the phrases sung into it on a loop to allow the group to build musical moments. This worked especially well during the emotional “Time and I.” It was beautiful and I have never seen anything like it.

I left the performance venue enthused and excited, certain of the fact I really should go to more concerts. It was a great experience, from a location that allowed me to get literally five feet from the stage to the fact I finally saw one of my favorite bands. However, I’d really love to see Jukebox the Ghost get a bigger and more complex stage in the future. The band members are natural performers and their music is already incredibly layered and intricate. Get this band the corresponding light and stage show. They deserve some dry ice and roaming, colored stage lights.

Catching Stars

Photo courtesy of Theatre Charlotte

A crocodile that ticks. A pirate crew led by a captain with a hook for a hand. A boy that lives forever. The story of Peter Pan has become a part of our cultural canon. Originally written by author J.M. Barrie and popularized by the 1953 Disney film, the tale has been examined and translated into an unlimited number of forms. Want to know what happens when Peter grows up? Watch Spielberg’s “Hook.” Live-action translation of the Disney film? The 2003 film “Peter Pan” fits the bill perfectly. Have a thing for literary web series? Youtube’s “The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy” has you covered. However, Theatre Charlotte’s production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a play based off of the 2004 novel “Peter and the Starcatchers,” offers something new. It seeks to explain how Peter, Neverland and the infamous Captain Hook came to be. Even better, it does so on stage.

The play begins with a simple set-up. Two ships, The Neverland and The Wasp, are bound to Rundoon. The Wasp, a fast-moving British ship, will carry Lord Aster (Troy Feay) and an important trunk, property of Queen Victoria. The other, The Neverland, shall take a slower and less precarious route to Rundoon. It carries Lord Aster’s daughter, Molly (Ailey Finn), her nanny (Johnny Hohenstein), three orphan boys sold into slavery and a motley crew of seamen supposedly transporting an identical trunk full of sand. The key: the trunks were switched by the crew of The Neverland. And the one containing Queen Victoria’s treasure? It actually carries starstuff, a magical substance made of fallen stars that will transform what it touches into “what they want to be.” Lord Aster and Molly are later revealed to be Starcatchers on a mission to destroy the starstuff before it can fall into the hands of those who would use it for evil.

However, this description ignores two of the most central characters in the show. The first is an orphan boy with no name (Patrick Stepp). One of three orphans sold into slavery on the ship, The Boy is a quiet and angry force. While he desperately wants a home and family, he is also extremely (and understandably) distrustful of adults, who have done nothing but abandon and abuse him in the past. His growing friendship with Molly becomes a central focus of the play, in which he finds purpose in their mission to save the starstuff and learns the importance of friendship. It is this Boy that will transform into the iconic Peter Pan. The other side of the coin is Dave Blamy as Black Stache. A “ruthless” pirate who leads his crew in a takeover of The Wasp, Black Stache is a comedic force with a penchant for poetry and theatrics. Desperate for the trunk he believes to hold Queen Victoria’s treasure, he and his crew head straight for The Neverland. There, they duel as their ships collide in a tremendous storm before The Neverland sinks and its occupants are forced to flee to safety by swimming/floating to a nearby island.

The cast here is incredible and really works to elevate the source material. Stepp and Finn play well off of each other as leads and their banter feels genuine. It can be hard to take on a role as iconic as Peter Pan, but Stepp really commits and makes it believable, even if this Peter is different than the one the audience knows from Disney. Jesse Pritchard as Prentiss and A.J. White as Ted complete the group of children and provide some solid comic relief. The head of comedy, however, is Black Stache and Smee (Jeff Powell). Blamy as Black Stache is simultaneously channeling Christian Borle incredibly hard while making the character his own. He is laugh-out-loud funny and only improved by Powell’s excellent comedic timing and support. It works, and it works well.

Photo courtesy of Theatre Charlotte

Serious acknowledgment needs to go to the creative team behind “Peter” as well. The set simultaneously is fairly large and adds an immediate “pirate” feel to the stage while providing the space for imaginative stagings and the use of cast members as part of the set. The use of lighting to set scenes in various places (such as the jungle, in the bowels of ships, or underwater) and control the tone cannot be understated. Lightning flashes and eyes glow in the dark. Jill Bloede’s direction stands out especially in the staging of a scene in which Molly trails Alf (UNCC Alum Bowen Abbey) deep into the ship. They crawl under gradually-lower strings to indicate deeper parts of the boat and she opens doors by turning cast members to face her, which immediately spring into action creating various scenes of pirate life (such as gambling and torture). A scene in which the characters collectively get separated and lost while running in the jungle is also especially memorable for its staging and execution.

However, the show is not without its flaws. It attempts to hit a middle ground, balancing comedy with an emotional story about friendship, family and growing up. “Peter” is far more successful at the former. The best part of the show is the two-minute musical number that opens Act Two, featuring the cast as fish recently turned into mermaids. It is an excellent example of comedy in a musical number and hits every beat it needs to. Yet, “Peter’s” attempts at emotional resolution just don’t completely hit, as if they missed by a centimeter or two. This isn’t any fault of the actors. It is a writing issue, as the pace moves incredibly quickly in some places (the Peter and Molly friendship/relationship suffers from this) or much too slow (the first half of the first act). The dialogue around the more poignant topics also feels stuffy and like the play is trying too hard to hammer home its point. This is only more obvious when the lines are spoken by characters that are meant to be children. The problem is disappointing considering how great “Peter” handles comedy and lighthearted fun.

Despite its flaws, “Peter and the Starcatcher” excels at comedy and provides a fun night at the theater. It can entertain children and adults alike through an imaginative and whimsical plot, a great technical team and the interactions of its cast. All of the actors are having fun here and it shows. Furthermore, it is a solid exploration of the origins of Peter Pan. It addresses most of the details, such as how Captain Hook lost his hand, why Peter never ages and how the crocodile started ticking like a clock. This is a solid start to Theatre Charlotte’s 91st season. I’m excited to see what the rest of it brings.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” is currently playing at Theatre Charlotte. Dates are Sept. 12-16 and 19-23, while times vary. Tickets are $28.

Fall-ing in Love with the Arts

Every year, UNC Charlotte’s College of Arts + Architecture curates a busy schedule of theater and dance performances, art gallery openings and concerts to showcase the incredible talent found on campus to the university community. This fall is no different. Whether you are an established fan of the arts or simply looking to experience something new, there is bound to be something for you this upcoming semester! Below is an overview of some of the events held this fall, however, the full schedule can be found at https://coaa.uncc.edu/calendar/month/2018-08.


The UNC Charlotte theater season typically consists of four productions, placing two in the fall semester and two in the spring. This fall consists of two (radically different) plays. The first is “Archipelago,” a play written by UNC Charlotte alum and OBIE Award winner Caridad Svich. It will star two UNC Charlotte theater professors, Carlos Alexis Cruz and Kaja Dunn, and be guest directed by Monica Ndounou of Dartmouth College. The show will run from Sept. 12 – 16 in the Black Box Theater. The second is the theater classic (and inspiration for the iconic Amanda Bynes movie “She’s The Man”) “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare. A comedy centering around a woman named Viola, who has assumed the identity of a man in order to obtain work, and the love triangle that later ensues, it promises to be a fun night at the theater. As a person who is generally a Shakespeare fan, I’m really excited about this one. It will also play in the Black Box Theater and will run Oct. 25 – Oct. 28 and Oct. 31 – Nov. 4. Tickets for both shows are $18 with concession prices (ranging from $12 – $8) for a number of groups including UNC Charlotte faculty, alumni, students, seniors and veterans.


West African dance piece, “Bonheur et Prosperite” performed during the 2018 Spring Dance Concert. Photo credit is Jeff Cravotta.


The Department of Dance will host two large dance concerts this fall. One consists of performances and choreography from the department’s faculty and guest artists. This (aptly named) Faculty Dance Concert will occur on Sept. 28 and 29. The other, the annual Fall Dance Concert, will feature student performers complemented by choreography from faculty and guests. It will run from Nov. 15 – Nov. 18. Both concerts typically explore a wide range of dance styles and topics. They will be held in the Belk Theater and ticket prices remain the same as for the aforementioned theater productions.


One of the best parts of college is the opportunity to explore something new and fall in love with it. For me, that experience applies strongly to attending my first art gallery opening on campus. A number of exhibitions are held on campus every year, though this fall there are three that especially stand out on the calendar. The first is the CoAA Global Studies 2018 Exhibition, held in Storrs Gallery. The exhibition aims to be a reflection on students’ study abroad experiences using a number of different mediums, including video, analytical diagrams and drawings. I recently spent six months abroad and am looking forward to seeing how the exhibit conceptualizes that experience. The opening reception will take place on Sept. 14 while the exhibit itself will be on view until Sept. 28. Later in the fall, the School of Architecture is presenting a “symposium and exhibition” entitled “SEE-ING: The Environmental Consciousness Project Symposium.” The showcase will be curated by Assistant Professor Catty Zhang and on view in Storrs Gallery. The opening reception is scheduled for Oct. 15 while the exhibition will stay open until Nov. 16. The final big showcase currently scheduled for the fall is the Opening Reception for McColl Artist-in-Residence Liz Miller on Oct. 31. According to the event’s listing online, “Miller creates elaborate chain patterns cut from industrial rolls of materials such as felt, vinyl, and leather….these patterns are both elegant and deadly.” Students will also work with Miller to create a piece for display during the exhibition, which will be held in the Rowe Galleries. The works will be on view from Oct. 27 – Nov. 10. All three exhibitions are free.


Photo courtesy of CoAA.


The music department has an especially busy semester this upcoming fall. It has to balance multiple choir groups, faculty and guest performances and various band and orchestra ensembles. In the early fall semester, the Faculty & Friends concert series hosts guest performers and showcases the department’s talented faculty. The first of these concerts will feature the ensembles A Sign of the Times and the Madison Park Quartet, which will perform a tribute to Nina Simone. This concert will be held in Rowe Recital Hall on Aug. 28.  Other featured performers in this series include Kirsten Swanson and Eric Millard. During the first week of October, concerts hosted by Jazz Ensemble & Combos, Wind Ensemble and Orchestra are available. The University Chorale will perform later that month. All of these mid-semester performances will be held in the Belk Theater. The final weeks of the semester are also home to a number of music performances, starting with the Gospel Choir on Nov. 19 in Rowe Recital Hall and ending with the Men and Women’s Choruses on Dec. 4 in the Belk Theater. Ticket prices range depending on the concert, though most are $8.

Best Songs of 2017 as Selected by A&E Writers

“Harry Styles” by Harry Styles. (Album art courtesy of Columbia Records.)

Jeffrey Kopp

5. “Like Gold” by Vance Joy: This Australian singer-songwriter first appeared on my radar back in 2013 via his hit single “Riptide.” Years later, I randomly came across “Like Gold,” a single from his upcoming album “Nation of Two,” on Spotify and I was immediately reeled in with its catchy hook. This is a song that really tells a story through the lyrics and Joy’s voice matches the lyrics with his passion. There’s a comforting calm feel that this song evokes, even having a nostalgic vibe that transports the listener to a simpler time in their life. Without any doubt, “Like Gold” has reintroduced me to the music of Vance Joy and I’m thrilled to hear the rest of the album when it releases in February.

4. “Sweet Creature” by Harry Styles: If there’s anything to take away from the rough year that 2017 was, it’s that Harry Styles is insanely talented. Stepping forward and creating his own path after One Direction has allowed Styles to really showcase his own style with his self-titled album that released in May; the album is filled with incredible songs such as “Sign of the Times” and “Kiwi,” but “Sweet Creature” is by far my favorite, because it allows Styles to hit his famous high notes in the chorus that blend beautifully with quieter verses. This is a song that has an old-school soulful feel to it, but also shows that Harry is making creative and fresh music.

3. “Silence” by Marshmello (feat. Khalid): Just when I thought that I couldn’t love Khalid anymore, he joins forces with Marshmello to deliver an epic track that perfectly utilizes both artists. The lyrics make it hard not to sing along to and Khalid’s voice is commanding and powerful as he bleeds emotions and passion. The electronic music from Marshmello has this energetic and lively feel that makes you want to get up and dance. Hopefully Marshmello and Khalid collaborate on other projects in the future, because this song is an example of a duo that is complimentary while simultaneously demonstrating the talent of the two individuals.

2. “Praying” by Kesha: 2017 saw the welcome return of Kesha to the music scene, dropping the famous “$” sign from her name and entering into a whole new era. “Praying” is both cathartic and anthemic, taking the legal issues and abuse that the singer suffered through and leaving them behind. The depression, anger, loneliness and pain that Kesha has experienced is very much present in the song, as is forgiveness and empathy. Kesha’s willingness and ability to move forward and create her own future through new music is truly inspiring and sends a strong message to those that abuse and exploit others. Kesha’s soul and emotions can be felt throughout the song and the incredible high note is testament to her talent as a singer.

1. “1-800-273-8255” by Logic (feat. Alessia Cara and Khalid): The world really needed this song. Depression and suicide have been subjects in music forever, but Logic tells a story without any fancy language or metaphors. He’s straight to the point about an issue that affects millions of people and the message of his song applies not only to those suffering, but it’s also directed to those in the position to help. By having the lyrics tell the story of a phone conversation between someone on the verge of suicide and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, it’s made abundantly clear that this are avenues of help available. This song has an important message, but it is also catchy and allows Logic, Alessia Cara and Khalid to showcase their talents in a powerful collaboration.

“As You Were” by Liam Gallagher. (Album art courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Stephanie Trefzger

5. “Bist du Down?” by Ace Tee (feat. Kwam.E): Over the past year I have been on a journey to rediscover my love for my native language, German, and this song and artist has played a huge role in that. While Ace Tee is new to music, just releasing her first EP this year, her music styling is not; this song throws it back to the R&B and hip-hop of the early 90’s when she was born.  Unwittingly, perhaps, this song also helped to usher in a new wave of discussion among young people regarding race relations in Germany.  That aside, though, this song just has a good, relaxed vibe to it.

4. “Paracetamol” by Declan McKenna: I’m not usually into indie because I unfortunately associate it with that “bananis and avocadis” vine by Chrish, but even before that, I couldn’t stand many indie singers’ soft and quiet voices where I could barely hear what they were saying. But Declan McKenna’s voice is soft without being quiet. This, coupled with the organ-like electronic opening and lyrics about growing up make for a great song. The darker lyrics with the fun, upbeat instrumentals create an interesting dynamic as well. I was heavily reminded of Vampire Weekend (who I miss) upon first listening.

3. “For What It’s Worth” by Liam Gallagher: Anyone who knows me knows that I am more partial to Liam’s brother, Noel when it comes to just about everything, but especially musically, so I never thought I would put a Liam song on this list over a Noel one when they were released in the same year, but 2017 has been full of surprises; what’s one more? Liam’s former musical project, Beady Eye, sounded a lot like a Beatles cover band, so I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of this song or out of the album in general. However, this song is raw, original and devoid of the narcissism he is known for.

2. “The Chain” by Harry Styles: I don’t know if this is cheating or not, but this next one’s a cover rather than an original. But I, like many people at this point, am in love with Harry Styles. This is a new development for me, one that grew, partially, out of this song. I am a Fleetwood Mac purist and usually hate any covers of their songs, but Styles’ passion and ability combine into a soulful and true cover. This is by no means Styles’ biggest accomplishment this year (ya know, with the incredible album he released this year), but it stands out for sure. This song isn’t on Spotify, so I’ll add a video below:

1. “Silence” by Marshmello (feat. Khalid): This song hands-down wins song of the year for me. I anticipated it when Khalid teased it on Twitter, and I was absolutely not disappointed when it was finally released. I spend a good amount of time in the car, and this is a great car song. The backing vocals in the second verse honestly made my jaw drop the first time I heard it and still give me shivers. The production value on this song is honestly incredible. I haven’t gotten sick of it yet, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

“Woodstock” by Portugal, The Man. (Album art courtesy of Atlantic Records)

Tyler Trudeau

5. “Rose-Colored Boy” by Paramore: While I was always a very impartial fan of the punk-pop group of Paramore, their various hits like “Misery Business” and “Ain’t It Fun” making waves across the music scene, something instantly drew me to their latest album “After Laughter.” An emotional, pop-infused journey for lead vocalist Hayley Williams, the album left me with a number of phenomenal tracks stuck in my head. One in particular, “Rose-Colored Boy,” still makes me want to get up and dance at the first spark of its beat.

4. “Feel It Still” by Portugal. The Man: Another anthem for the year found itself in Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still.” Acting as a catchy, rhythmic introduction for me to the band’s unique sound, the hit made its mark as it blared continuously across the radio.

3. “Ultralife” by Oh Wonder: After a dynamic entry with their self-titled debut album, the pop duo of Oh Wonder delivered another effortless set with this year’s “Ultralife.” With their title track breathing life into the summer, it instantly became a sprawling and infectious anthem for the rest of the year.

2. “Say It First” by Sam Smith: With the mellow brilliance of Sam Smith returning to the charts with his newest album “The Thrill of It All,” one of the most memorable singles off the album was easily the sensitive ballad of “Say It First.” Utilizing the artist’s mesmerizing voice with lyrics spinning a search for love, “Say It First” draws you instantly into Sam Smith’s newest and most volatile release.

1. “Drink Too Much” by Geowulf: After falling in love with the London-based pop duo last summer, I’ve been eagerly awaiting all year to hear more from Geowulf. With their electric hit “Saltwater” injecting dreamy lyrics into a dazzling backdrop, the Australian duo returned later this year with “Drink Too Much.” Marking another stellar single from their upcoming debut album, Geowulf remains one of the best surprises of the year.

“The Click” by AJR. (Album art courtesy of AJR Productions)

Elissa Miller

5. “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons: I’m sure some of my appreciation for this song comes purely from my excitement about Imagine Dragons’ new music. However, I do legitimately love this song. The fairly simple lyrics make the song easy to sing along to in the car, which is a necessity for me. It also functions well as a confidence builder and pick me up. This summer I had a habit of using it to help me wake up in the mornings as I drove to work, something I highly recommend.

4. “For Elise” by Saint Motel: I can’t explain my love for this song other than the fact I’ve listened to it almost nonstop since I found it during fall break. It features an upbeat tempo, original sound and catchy lyrics. Everything about it makes me want to dance.

3. The Entire Falsettos 2016 Broadway Revival Cast Album: This is probably cheating, but I am physically incapable of choosing a single song to represent this masterpiece of a musical. While the revival premiered in 2016, the album itself was not released until January of this year and technically counts as 2017. Taking place in the late 70s/early 80s, the plot of Falsetttos focuses on the story of Marvin, a man desperately trying to force his family to get along after taking a male lover. What ensues is a beautiful musical that touches on themes of love, family, and friendship. The revival cast is made up of extremely talented Broadway stars (including Christian Borle and Andrew Rannels), all of which are in great form. It’s a little long, so I’d highly recommend a listen during a roadtrip.

2. “The Good Part” by AJR: AJR’s second album is an experience best listened to in order and all the way through. However, if you can only listen to one song, this is my recommendation. While AJR’s music is more synthsized/electronic than I would typically listen to, their use of unique instruments and complex musical arrangements has completely won me over. “The Good Part” features all of the elements that make this album great.

1. “In the Middle” by Dodie: According to Spotify, this was the song I listened to the most this year. I wasn’t surprised. “In the Middle” comes from Dodie’s second EP, released in August of this year. This song has more of a pop feel to it than the rest of the album, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s nice to see an artist mix things up a bit; Dodie is having fun here. RELATED: This isn’t Dodie’s first time on an end of the year list, I chose the song “When” from her debut “Intertwined EP” for last year’s roundup.

“Evolve” by Imagine Dragons. (Album art courtesy of Interscope Records)

Noah Howell

5. “Walk on Water” by Eminem (Feat. Beyoncé): While Eminem’s latest album was good, it was simply only good and left much to be desired for me personally. That said, the opening song “Walk on Water” provides a interesting look at where Eminem is at now. Eminem does a good job at providing commentary through his lyrics towards both his past music and where he sees himself now compared to others in the genre. Most interesting is that the song opts for a piano melody as opposed to a regular hip-hop beat, which works surprisingly well in conjunction with Beyoncé’s chorus.

4. “Believer” by Imagine Dragons: From the start, “Believer” hits you with a heavy beat that is hard not to pay attention to. If you’re ever feeling down or just looking for some motivation, this song delivers from the musical beat alone. I wouldn’t consider myself an Imagine Dragons fan, though this song certainly got me more interested in them after first hearing it, and has stayed in my playlist of favorites since.

3. “Jump Up, Super Star!” by Naoto Kubo: Just like its actual gameplay, “Super Mario Odyssey” brings a refreshing take on its music that is a delight to listen to. While each world has its own style, the final part of the New Donk City world features one of my favorite singles of the year. “Jump Up, Super Star!” continues Nintendo’s use of the Big Band Swing genre, and the song itself just embodies the sense of adventure that you’ll find all throughout the game itself. The songs catchy lyrics also give nods to past “Mario” titles, with the song used in the original “Donkey Kong” game even being teased as well.

2. “Floral Fury” by Kristofer Maddigan: With the 1920’s cartoon aesthetic, “Cuphead” needed a soundtrack that would match perfectly alongside it, and composer Kristofer Maddigan provided. While the entire soundtrack is great, “Floral Fury” stands out among the rest with its unique samba style. The uptempo piece gives a lot of the spotlight to trumpet, making it hard to sit still when listening, which even the boss you fight during the song can’t help but do.

1. “Dinah” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy: In an album dedicated to Louie Armstrong, Louie Jordan and Louie Prima, “Dinah” kicks it off in a special way by covering one of Armstong’s biggest hits. The song begins with the same intro that Armstong gave in the original recording, and right away you’re into the fantastic sax interlude. Musically it is the same notes, but the band does a great job at adding their own flair to it, while paying respect to those who performed it before like Mr. Armstrong. The whole album continues this sentiment with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s New Orleans jazz style, making it my favorite release of the year.

“Melodrama” by Lorde (Album art courtesy of Lava/Republic Records)

Aaron Febre

5. “Date Night” by IDLESIDLES’ debut album “Brutalism” reminds me how Rock music can still be fierce musically and retain thought-provoking topics. And “Date Night” is the track that is my favorite off the album. The thumping, idiosyncratic bass, the guttural guitars and frontman Joe Talbot’s animated vocals. Talbot is like a combination of John Lydon (Sex Pistols) and Henry Rollins (Black Flag). This is a sound of a raging lunatic that has certainly caught my attention and leaving me wanting to play “Brutalism” over and over again.

4. “The Story of O.J.” by Jay-Z: This was straight up brilliant from Hova. Considering where he is now in his career, it would make sense to see an established icon like him to make an album that shows him becoming the elder statesmen in Hip-Hop. The sample of Nina Simone’s “Four Women” brilliantly ties up with the lyrics of issues that are being dealt with in the Black community with Jay giving his advice to the community to make them better. Do check out the music video to this track as it further emphasizes the lyrics presented here.

3. “how do you sleep?” by LCD Soundsystem: While I don’t think “American Dream” is anywhere near the level the last two LCD albums, it did produce some great tracks with “how do you sleep?” taking the top spot. It feels like this is a dark, twisted version of another LCD song, “Dance Yrself Clean” (from 2010’s “This Is Happening”). The Joy Division-like drumbeat, James Murphy’s tense vocals and the stomping electronic beat halfway through the song brings a darker side of LCD that I’ve never seen in their previous output.

2. “PRIDE.” by Kendrick LamarThis was the surprising track for me from “DAMN.” I never thought Kung Fu Kenny would go out and make this Psychedelic-like Hip-Hop track. My most played song off of “DAMN.”, “PRIDE.” has the hypnotic guitar chords, the sleepy like vocals of Anna Wise, the religious imagery lyrics and the beautiful refrain “Maybe I wasn’t there,” which conclude to me that this is one of the best tracks Lamar ever recorded.

1. “Liability” by Lorde: A heart-piercing piano ballad from Ella Yelich-O’Connor. This is the best track from “Melodrama.” The soft yet vicious vocals from Lorde with lyrics about personal self-doubt that I can relate to on many levels. “Liability,” as well the album itself, shows Lorde’s songwriting growing and leaving me thoroughly satisfied considering my lack of interest on her debut album. Plus, she’s only 21 years old and her storytelling leaves me floored.

“Rather You Than Me” by Rick Ross. (Album art courtesy of Maybach Music/Epic Records)

Bryson Williams

5. “Sacrifices” by Drake: Would it even be a valid list if a Drake song wasn’t included? “Sacrifices” is the 12th song off Drake’s playlist “More Life,” which was released back in March 2017. “Sacrifices” is a window to Drake’s elegant lifestyle and also a look into his female affairs. “40 got a house on the lake, I ain’t know we had a lake, she complainin’ how I’m late, I ain’t know it was a date.” The track includes a swag-rap verse from 2 Chainz and a ridiculously impressive verse from Atlanta superstar Young Thug. The beat has a tropical feel and creates the perfect vibe for sitting back and relaxing to, and has the ability to set the mood for any room you’re in.

4. “Apple of My Eye” by Rick Ross: On Rick Ross’s album “Rather You Than Me,” Ross balances out introspection and traditional Rozay party anthems. Ross opens up the album with a run down of his ambitions and the feats he’s overcome throughout his life in “Apple of My Eye.” The track opens up with Ross expressing what the apple of his eye was: being someone that his mom could be proud of, and someone his neighborhood could look up to. Ross raps “Lights off so you never tend to speak much, go your separate ways every time the lease up.” Rick Ross highlights the struggles he’s endured to be the mogul and icon he is today. The saxophone in the background of the track captures the therapeutic vibe of the song and forces you to listen to every word. The song ranks on my list because it has so much to digest and will always leave you looking deeper into yourself.

3. “911/Mr. Lonely” by Tyler, The Creator: Tyler, The Creator hit us all by surprise with a bass filled single titled “Who Dat Boy,” accompanied by a music video with a cameo from A$AP Rocky during the Summer of 2017. Although, following that song, he did a 180 and calmed the nerves in the room with “911/Mr Lonely.” The track is about the loneliness Tyler feels and the feeling of hoping at least one person hits your line today. The track features alternative R&B greats Steve Lacy, Anna of the North and perhaps one of the greatest of this generation, Frank Ocean. This song is on my list because of the undeniably beautiful chords and the perfect features. Tyler also delivers honest story-telling like verses that express the true emotion of the song.

2. “Self-Made” by Bryson Tiller: Most of the world knows of Bryson Tiller through is chart topping single “Don’t” back in 2015. Since then, Tiller has established stardom and has been welcomed into the hearts of the new culture of R&B. In July of 2017, he released his sophomore album “True To Self,” which contained 19 songs; five more than his debut album. On the album, Tiller takes us through a ray of emotions as he always does, but then hits with a rare braggadocio in “Self-Made.” The song opens with a bang and Tiller wastes no time getting straight to the point. “Gucci on my belt, bought a necklace for myself, bought Giuseppe for myself, spent them blessings on myself ” he raps with an open confidence, contrary to usual reserved demeanor. This song ranks on my list because its impossible for this song to not lift your confidence. This song is a reminder to always walk into any place with a poised swagger.

1. “The Heart Part 4” by Kendrick Lamar: In late March of 2017, amidst album releases by Hip Hop frontrunners by the likes of Drake, and Rick Ross, another Hip-Hop icon made certain we didn’t forget about him. On March 23, Kendrick Lamar abruptly released his militant and poetic single titled “The Heart Part 4.” The track starts off with soft kicks and a soulful sample as Lamar spits his first line: “30 millions later my future favors the legendary status of a hip hop rhyme savior.” The Compton MC flows effortlessly through three beat changes telling the world where he’s been and and that he still runs the game. This song ranks as 1st because of its over-your-head lyricism and the production of each beat effortlessly contours around Kendrick’s flow. Making it a one-of-a kind song that only a one-of a kind artist can execute.

“Everybody” by Logic. (Album art courtesy of Visionary Music Group/Def Jam Recordings)

Jerry Yan

5. “Cold” by Maroon 5 (feat. Future): As a fan of Maroon 5, I was excited to hear the song on the radio when it was released. The song is catchy as usual, and the lyric talks about turbulences lovers encounter. People who are in a relationship tend to relate to the song. Moreover, Adam Levine’s voice fits in well with Future’s rap verse in the song.

4. “Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens: Nothing is more beautiful than adolescent love. Featured in the LGBTQ+ movie “Call Me by Your Name,” this piece reckons pictures and flashbacks of the summer days that Elio and Oliver spent together in an Italian small town. However, the slightly somber melody epitomizes a sad ending. It was a utopian romance between the boys. But love is love.

3. “Despacito – Remix” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (feat. Justin Bieber): Meaning “slowly” in English, “Despacito” was people’s summer addiction in 2017. The Spanish rhythm and lyrics seemed novel but addictive to lots of people. When Justin Bieber participated in the remix version of the song, it made a hit worldwide. From grocery stores in the U.S. to the nightclubs in China, I’ve heard the song everywhere.

2. “1-800-273-8255” by Logic (feat. Alessia Cara and Khalid): It’s not my first time to hear songs about suicide, but Logic has made his piece fairly innovative yet inspiring. The title is the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. From “I just wanna die” to “I don’t wanna die anymore,” the song transitions from hell to heaven, portraying how people successfully save themselves.

1. “Fetish” by Selena Gomez (feat. Gucci Mane): Gomez takes one step forward in the fashion game in her video and song cover of “Fetish,” rocking a vintage yellow dress with a pair of white sneakers. As sexy as usual, “Fetish” consists of beats from R&B and electronic music, and the theme of the lyric plays around desires and attractions between the two loved ones.