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Rent: 4,320 minutes to see the 20th anniversary of this Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical “Rent" has suffered a lot of ridicule over the years, from comics to pop culture lampooning something that became a bit of a cultural phenomenon.

But if you were like me and other artists in 1996, when “Rent” would debut on stage, it was a beautiful, white hot spotlight revealing the lives of folks who for far too long had been overlooked by society. In short, this Broadway stage was filled (again) with people who felt like people I knew in the city and whose real crime was that they were trying to break through to something new. 

The musical is loosely based on the Puccini's opera “La Bohème” and is a modern rock opera packed with powerful vocal performances about the lives of young artists hoping to survive in a city rebounding from the brink of economic disaster. 

Set in New York City's East Village during the dark days after Reagan — who botched the AIDS crisis in America —  this face-paced musical is built around the rage, confusion and heart of a forgotten generation all trying to find themselves while navigating their emerging adult life and its meaning in a time of disease with no real cure in sight. (Note: The drug AZT is featured in “Rent,” but during the time this musical is set, it was a problematic prescriptive because of its high toxicity.) 

“Rent” is traveling across the nation as part of a special 20th anniversary tour of the show and will only be on stage locally for three days, so be sure to get your tickets soon.

Jonathan Larson, creator of “Rent,” would never live to see his most popular work go on to dominate the Tony Awards in 1996, much less see it open on Broadway, because the artist would die the night before previews were to begin.

But his life would be measured by theatre-goers via the love he sparked as thousands of outcasts, artists and boot strappers adopted this musical as a rally cry of a generation. And much like the opera it is based upon, “La Bohème,” this contemporary musical, which deals with real world problems in the wake of a plague, would go on to win a generation of new theatre-goers’ hearts, thus ushering in a new era of modern musicals. 

I know this story’s powerfully honest message all too well because just a little over a month after returning from NY to see it live with the original cast in1996, my then partner would pass away from AIDS.  Art does mimic life in remarkably painful ways. 

“Measure your life in love.” - J. Larson. 

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"Rent" is part of Broadway Grand Rapids 2016 - 2017 season. To see what they have lined up for 2017 - 2018, including "Wicked," "Les Miserables," and the return of Deborah Cox to GR in "The Bodyguard," please visit their site. 

Simmer Down at Slows: Bar BQ and chill

The history of Slows, a barbecue restaurant chain launched in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, is a tasty one, but also a story with a huge community engagement piece built in right at the start.

It was while on a 2011 Rapid Growth bus trip to Detroit to observe and connect with area entrepreneurs  and change-agents that we learned from Phil Cooley, co-owner of Slows Bar BQ (and founder of Ponyride, a Detroit-based nonprofit that supports artists and entrepreneurs), that we would learn that the making a successful restaurant takes a lot more than just a good sandwich. 

What stood out from our visit to Detroit was how when Cooley was sweating away in this once boarded-up, old storefront while remodeling the interior of this restaurant, neighborhood residents would press their faces to the glass to observe. 

On a street with little to no economic activity happening on the strip,  many thought he was crazy to open this venue up in a place on the edge of everything. In fact, as folks inquired, he would ask them if they wanted to help. 

And this is where I believe the secret to Slows success was something more than what was in the sauce: locals showed up to assist this young dreamer to help make Slows happen in their neighborhood. 

And the rest is a delicious history. 

At the Grand Rapids location of our Slows located in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, an evolution of the state’s best BBQ is emerging in this space that is located (once again) on the fringe of a neighborhood. 

Not only has Slows recently added sit-down service alongside its marketplace style of eating (for those in a hurry), they will on this Thursday night welcome one of the area’s favorite deejays, Jeff Finan, to spin a nice two hour set of some of the most dope reggae tracks as guests enjoy a special night devoted to rum drinks and hickory spiced Jamaican jerk chicken wings.

Finan is a member of Grand Rapids’ Vinyl Fetish and is known for his ability to take an obscure tune and give it new life under his touch. Don’t believe me? Then just ask anyone who caught his set last weekend at Billy’s, where, among the many tunes he spun, he dropped a rare Grace Jones remix of Grace Jones’ “Pull Up to the Bumper” that he recently discovered in the record bins at Vertigo on Division Avenue.

This is sure to be a festive and fun night with plenty of impromptu moments of dance from our local (and growing) dance music community.

For the most up to date information, be sure to follow their Facebook event page.

Grand Raggidy Roller Derby: Double header on wheels

Grand Rapids has had its share of women’s sports teams over the years, but the Grand Raggidy Roller Derby is one of the only contemporary sports teams to last more than 10 years.

On Saturday, our roller derby teams, the Grand Raggidy Attack and the Grand Raggidy All Stars, will welcome the Barbed Wire Betties from Dekalb County, Illinois and Tri-City Roller Derby from the Waterloo region of Ontario. 

This is the first time that the Barbed Wire Betties have ever faced the Grand Raggidy Attack, but both teams have a well-deserved reputation for being real scrappers -- so you know this match opening a double header is going to be an intense one. And while our Grand Raggidy Attack have a predicted 70 percent chance of beating the visiting team, the Betties are currently on an unstoppable winning streak, making our home rink advantage dependent on our fans to show up en masse. 

After this match, the Grand Raggidy All Stars will roll like hell against one of the fastest teams in the league, Tri-City Roller Derby. This will be a nail-biter, as both teams arrive in town with a set of skills that will surely lead to an exciting game with so much action that you might just drink the bar dry. 

In their last match, the All Stars lost to Tri-City by only 30 points, but our team is up for the challenge and, as always, we’re willing to bet against all odds for a hometown win. 

As with any Grand Raggidy Roller Derby event, the fun doesn’t land just on the rink because tonight’s theme is all things western, so giddy up to the match in your most festive cowgirl or cowboy outfit. Heck, you can even come dressed as a cow, but if someone tries to rope you…well…you have been warned. 

Tickets to the event are $12 in advance or $15 at the door. Discounts for kids, students and seniors are also available. Pre-sale tickets can be purchased from skaters prior to the event. Advanced tickets can also be purchased at Brown Paper Ticket’s site

Sausage making workshop: Tasty meats made delicious by you

One of the many new shops to pop up in East Hills is the Louise Earl Butcher, but what makes this neighborhood business stand out is its workshop-themed classes that it offers from time to time.

For its upcoming Sunday workshop on sausage making, attendees will have a chance to learn how to make sausage from scratch. And if you are like me, then finally you’ll be able to justify purchasing the meat grinding and sausage making attachments for your KitchenAid mixer. 

But it is not necessary to have such tools since this hands-on experience in a spacious butcher’s kitchen will showcase how to grind your meat, season your pork mixture, and sort casings for stuffing. 

The class will learn how to make an Oaxacan chorizo and a craft beer sausage. 

If you are unfamiliar with Oaxacan chorizo, it is a Mexican sausage very deep in color with a delicious complex and tangy flavor infused with lots of chili. 

Don’t be afraid of the spice because what you are creating is a wonderfully smoky richness that makes chorizo a perfect sausage to serve with your eggs and toast in the morning.  Personally, I enjoy tossing in sautéed onions to the final steps of cooking chorizo. 

Whereas the Oaxacan Chorizo will be prepared as the loose variety (think ground), the craft beer sausage is going to be a stuffed variety made with beer from one of the local breweries. (The butcher has not decided yet but if one is concerned about gluten, it is best to alert the butcher in advance of this workshop.) 

The best part is that after you have learned how to make sausage you will be departing the shop with approximately 2 pounds of the sausage that you made at this community-building event that is organized around the concept that slowing down to make sausage shouldn’t be intimidating. 

As of press time, this popular event has now sold out, but the next chance to learn how to make sausage will be May 7. If you are someone who cannot wait, please contact the butcher to be added to a list just in case any openings should appear for Sunday’s event. 

Cost is $50 per person, call the shop at (616) 930-3602 to make reservations. 

Urban Forests: A natural history of trees and people in the American cityscape

Over the years, we have had plenty of dialogue in our region as to how we can be a greener society, from the way we encourage recycling to the advocacy of riding bikes as a way to offset carbon emissions.

And while these are often very public relations-driven efforts, behind the scenes we are a community concerned about our built environment (the resources and infrastructure designed to support human activity, such as parks, buildings and more). Through the addition of advances in green infrastructure, we can begin to reduce the threats of stormwater, delivering smarter policies that improve our environment and society, as well as increase economic benefits. 

One of our best defenses is the use of a long lived creation on our planet, the tree. 

On Wednesday at the downtown Grand Rapids Public Library, author Jill Jonnes, founder of the Baltimore Tree Trust, will share insights from her work in a lecture titled, “Trees as Green Infrastructure.”

Jonnes, an author of numerous books, has most recently released “Urban Forests: A Natural History  of Trees and People in The American Cityscape,” a rich celebration of the beauty and important duty trees play within our urban landscapes.  

This timing is perfect: as we begin our spring season, this lecture provides us with a reminder of the role that these living landmarks have on our city. From helping define our communities to cooling the air, trees also connect us to history, as they often outlive ourselves.

After the lecture, I’d suggest visiting the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks’ Urban Forest Project to learn how to become more involved in their critical work within this area. Earlier on this day, Friends’ will host a Q&A and book signing event with Jonnes at East Hills’ Books and Mortar

Both events are free and open to the public.

Blow Up: Inflatable Contemporary Art

Opening Reception: Thursday, Feb. 23, 5:30 p.m. (through April 23)
Too often art that is nontraditional can get a bad rap for a host of reasons, from being too cheery, kitsch, or nostalgia-driven to being viewed as not highbrow enough for the serious art collector.

But once in a while comes a show that hits on these often divergent stressors illustrated above to showcase not only what is possible with an installation but how such works can lift the imagination of the viewer.

That is the beauty of “Blow Up: Inflatable Contemporary Art,” a traveling exhibit that originally debuted at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California before (literally at times) filling up the gallery spaces at the Muskegon Museum of Art.

“Blow Up: Inflatable Contemporary Art” was created by the center’s Curator of Exhibitions Carrie Lederer at the Bedford Gallery and seeks to celebrate the history and joy of an art movement with roots stretching back to the late 60s and early 70s. 

And while the use of inflatables would fall out of fashion, the thing about time is that everything old has a chance to be revived, and “Blow Up” celebrates its most recent resurgence.

The show is a collection of representational and nonrepresentational objects that all vie for your attention while seeking to present a distinct point of view that can only be experienced by visiting this fantastic exhibition first hand, as photos cannot even begin to do justice to the scale of many of these objects.

Examples of the playful nature of this artwork can be discovered within San Francisco artist Guy Overfelt’s tribute to the film “Smokey and the Bandit,” as he has created a life-size replica of the Trans Am made famous by this popular movie from the 70s. 

One of my personal favorites is the “Somehow I Don't Feel Comfortable” inflatable of two enormous pink bunny rabbits that seek to reflect Japanese culture’s obsession with cute and anime, but with a disturbing nod to the realities of this country’s availability of space in its urban housing markets. Anyone who has seen images of the cage-like housing or pod hotel movement emerging in Asia can quickly understand the contrast of cute and cramped. 

“Blow Up” includes major works by Claire Ashley (Chicago), Lewis deSoto (Napa), Patrick Flibotte (New York), Billie Grace Lynn (Miami), Guy Overfelt (San Francisco), Momoyo Torimitsu (Tokyo), and Christo and Jeanne-Claude (New York).

At this free opening reception on Thursday, the museum will offer refreshments as well as a chance to secure your very own balloon animals by inflatable artist Jim Perry.

Food for Change: Making a case for alternative economies

The beauty of the era we find ourselves living right now is that the technology we use on a daily basis allows us immediate access to information as we seek to understand and solve complex problems in society. 

One area that Rapid Growth has been tracking for some time has been our local cooperative movement in all of its forms, from housing and fiber to a brewery and grocery store.

On Friday, Feb. 24 at the West Michigan Food Co-op a new documentary, “Food for Change,”  will be screened for locals who are curious about this alternative form of community wealth building.

Hosted by the Grand Rapids Food Co-op Initiative, the 82-minute documentary showcases the history of the food co-op movement in three distinct and easy-to-digest parts. 

Part one explores the conditions that led to the Great Depression -- a time that mirrors much of our present age, when fraudulent credit schemes, corporate control dominated systems, and an alarming increase of wealth disparity emerged in America. Co-ops began to play an increasingly important role during this period, offering a brief glimmer of hope and access for so many citizens who had been left out of the economic recovery of this time period. This movement would be short-lived as the post-World War II era brought new economic advances and challenges. 

Part two looks at co-ops as they begin to gain a new popularity during the 1960s, just as a new go natural movement began to take hold during a time when folks began to eye contemporary society and ask more questions from those in the food business. 

Part three brings us to the present, when local farmers, co-ops, and discerning consumers seek to wrestle back control of their local food economies. This documentary is sure to spur a lot of local dialogue on a topic growing more and more present in our society. 

Right before the screening will be a short presentation from local co-ops. Since this is an indoor picnic style event, please bring your own blanket or a folding chair. The event organizers will provide popcorn and other snacks for a small expense.

Please be respectful of the New Beginnings restaurant’s parking and use the co-op’s lot. 

Admission: Organizers are asking for a suggested donation of $5 per person or $10 per family to cover the cost of screening this documentary. 

Butterflies Are Blooming: Tropical-themed therapy for winter-weary Grand Rapidians

Are you sick of the winter chills? Can’t bear the thought of leaving your blue Snuggie? Do you yearn for that inner, satisfying feeling you had many months ago in Michigan when your bones were actually warm? 

Well, lucky for you, a much-needed and healing tropical 85 degrees and 70 percent humidity warmth has always been just a few miles away from your home in Grand Rapids at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

And in case you needed more than the promise of warmth and the chance to see Ai Weiwei’s historic “Natural State” exhibition, then the lively and light annual Fred & Dorothy Fichter “Butterflies Are Blooming” exhibition might be just the lure you need to get you there.

This popular annual event invites you to the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory, where more than 7,000 tropical butterflies from Africa, Asia, South America, and Central America will take flight after being birthed in the nation’s largest temporary tropical butterfly exhibition. 

Scheduled to appear this year is the blue Common Morpho, Clearwings, Lacewings, and Zebra Mosaics. Fans of the Longwings will enjoy their patterns-rich details found in the Small Blue Grecian, Doris, Postman and Tiger butterflies. Gliders will also be appearing like the Emperor, Ruby-spotted, and Tropical Swallowtails.

So, get off your couch, leave the drafty pub, grab the kids (not in this order), and head to the Gardens, where nearly 60 distinct and colorful species fly freely in this five-story, 15,000 square-foot conservatory.

Over the next two months, these winged performers are with us; more than 170,000 human visitors from all over the world will migrate to the Gardens to partake in this colorful exhibition of natural beauty. 

For more information, including admission and special programming created for this annual event, please visit its website.

12th Annual Winter Beer Festival: Pound Michigan brews in the open air

It is no secret that the biggest beer event on this side of the state is the annual Winter Beer Festival, which is not only turning 12 this year but continues to grow as it attracts craft beer lovers from all over the nation. 

And while the Saturday afternoon event at the Fifth Third Ballpark has been sold out since tickets went on sale, the Friday night event is a pleasant alternative for those who like to drink under a sunset and stars instead of the day drinking associated (and redefined) with Saturday’s session.

For the serious craft brew freak, here is an exhaustive list of all the beers appearing at the Winter Beer Festival this year.

And, as we mentioned that Saturday is completely sold out (again), there are still a few tickets available for Friday. These tickets cost $45 each (plus applicable fees) and include 15 three-ounce samples.

Remember this is an outdoor festival so dress for the weather. 

For the most current information, including frequently asked questions (what you can bring into the festival, hotel packages, shuttle services, etc.), visit the Michigan Brewers Guild 12th Annual Winter Beer Festival website.

Hand to God: Another fantastical Michigan debut

Opening Thursday, Feb. 16, 8 p.m. (through Feb. 25)
It is hard to imagine that the pipeline from Broadway flows so easily to West Michigan, but if you have been following this trend then it is not hard to see why “Hand to God” is having its Michigan debut at Actors’ Theatre.

Just a year ago, one of Broadway’s most shocking successes drew its final curtain, and almost as swiftly our local Actors’ Theatre bid for the rights to stage this play. 

Unlike most dramatic productions, this play defies all expectations with its edgy, laugh-out-loud humor mixed with poignancy. As a result of this winning combination, this little play that could ended up with four impressive Tony Award nominations, including the competitive Best Play category.

The story revolves around Jason, a student from a Christian Puppet Ministry who has found the best path to a saintly life is to adhere to the teachings of the Bible. 

But the play suddenly careens on another path when his foul-mouthed puppet named Tyrone begins to hand out eyebrow-raising advice on how to satisfy urges and deal with desires. This sets in motion a story where Jason must not just confront Tyrone’s words but will go on to question everything he knows. 

The New York Times reviewer writes, “You can enjoy ‘Hand to God’ merely as a festival of filthy hilarity, like ‘The Book of Mormon.’ But as I watched the play this year, for the third time, I found myself peering more closely into its psychological depth, and finding in it a weird mirror of our unsettling times…Maybe if more of the world’s troubled youth discharged their demons with the help of sock puppets, things might not look so grim.”

“Hand to God” is part of Actors’ Theatre impressive 36th season and represents (yet again) why it is one of the most exciting theatrical outlets in our city. 

Tickets: $28-Adults, $22-Student/Seniors, $10-Student Rush (available one hour prior to each performance) Tickets can be purchased at www.atgr.org or by calling the box office at 616-234-3946.

Retro D'Luxe: Get into the groove at this 80s prom

Prom is a big deal, and on Saturday night at The Pyramid Scheme Retro D’Luxe is looking to trip a few of your switches as they return to the popular downtown entertainment venue with a special installment of their popular nostalgia-driven dance party. 

For starters, the night’s theme is all 80s music prom. That means you can not only get your groove on with some of the most blindly ambitious and adventurous music ever created, but you will get to experience it like many of us did at our proms: in some of the most outlandish of fashions from the era.

Prom season is an economic boom for the city, as high schoolers typically prepare to get dressed up for the dance. One retailer reported that most teens will spend an average of $150 on a dress. Once you add upgrades, like alterations or a handmade, custom dress, then the price easily rises to upwards of $500. For the boys to rent a tuxedo will set a guy back $80. 

But you don’t have to spend that much, as we have plenty of second hand stores or vintage shops, like Flashback on Leonard, to help you get into that perfect 80s gown or retro-tux with a t-shirt.

The best part is that, unlike your high school prom, you are encouraged to drink in the open and not hide it as you might have done then.

For faster and guaranteed entry at this prom, be sure to purchase your $5 ticket in advance or be left crying in the hallway on this fun-filled night.

Taste of Soul Sunday: Celebrate Black History in an evolving city

There are plenty of ways to celebrate Black History Month in our region, but the one event that is a thrill to attend for so many reasons is downtown Grand Rapids Public Library’s Taste of Soul Sunday

At this annual event, you will have a chance to participate in hands-on activities and watch live performances related to Grand Rapids’ African American heritage and culture.  Also, as the name implies. there will be plenty of good eats from local restaurants (Daddy Pete's BBQ, Big Ed's BBQ, Gursha Ethiopian Restaurant, Malamiah Juice Bar) to sample at this day-long activity. 

Musical performances will include Glenda Williams, Sound Proof, Kathy Lamar, and Young Men 4 Christ. 

There are a series of lectures, too, ranging from Dr. Benjamin Wilson on the lives of “ordinary Black Folks” who lived in West Michigan between 1919 and1950 to David L. Head’s story of Granville T. Woods, the first African American mechanical and electrical engineer. 

In addition to activities for kids, like how to make an African tribal mask, there will be an educational workshop on how to create those elegant head wraps led by Master Wrapper Zarinah El-Amin Maeen.

Taste of Soul Sunday is free to the public and sponsored by the Grand Rapids Public Library Foundation, with additional support from Downtown Grand Rapids Incorporated and Meijer.

For more information, call 616-988-5400 or visit the library's website for the entire schedule. 

Los Tucanes de Tijuana: Narco culture’s musical ambassadors

Los Tucanes de Tijuana (LTdT), one of Mexico’s most successful musical acts, will be in Grand Rapids on Saturday night, and judging by their long legacy in the industry, this is going to be a thrilling concert for a host of reasons.

First, LTdT has created one of the most amazing discographies of any Mexican musical act, with a prolific knack of creating compelling and timely compositions that reflect the times.

What started in 1987 at a pub at Bar Razza's Club in Tijuana on the Baja California, their sound has evolved to a commentary on current events.

Secondly, they are part of a genre of Latin American music that leans on the traditions of the Norteña music (similar to the polka or corridor music), but also the emerging genre of  Narcocorrido, which is famously known in Mexico as drug-praising ballads examining the realities of Mexico’s contemporary culture. 

Sure, it is controversial material to base a ballad or dance song on, but isn’t most art created to reflect the realities of any culture? 

LTdT has a solid world following, as they are one of the biggest Latino acts to come out of Mexico, with more than 32 gold records, 30 platinum records, 66 Billboard Magazine hits, and 12 Grammy nominations. The group landed a Latin Grammy Award for Best Norteño Album (2012) for their release “365 Dias.” 

Pre-sale tickets are just $35, with a special children’s admission of $20. Want to wait until Saturday night to purchase a ticket, then expect to pay $50 day of show. 

Jammies: Live local music love festival turns 18!

Folks are always asking what is the best bet for those seeking to connect more to our local arts scene and honestly, one of the best answers is still “by attending listener supported radio WYCE 88.5 FM’s Jammies.”

This annual award show is really a right of passage for musicians who have not just labored to create a new release but have often played out in a variety of venues from brew pubs to patio bars to even house parties and basement shows. 

And for $5 (suggested cash donation) you will gain access to a thrilling night of music as 25 acts perform across two massive stages at The Intersection. 

In between the performances nearly a dozen awards will be given out over the course of the night’s entertainment. 

Another perk of the evening of back-to-back performances is that 16 of the 25 music acts have never performed at the Jammies before!

The Jammies is also a chance for the Greater Grand Rapids live music-loving audience to contribute to meeting the needs of its charity partner this year: Feeding America West Michigan.

The Jammies encourages folks to donate non-perishable food items (or cash) to the Feeding America table. (Just a side bar on food donations: No one is looking for old, outdated cans of creamed herring or that lonesome jar of capers. Be mindful that food drives are not a chance for you to clean out your kitchen cabinet of things you don’t want or don’t know what to do with. It is why I keep that “gifted” can of spotted dick on the shelf at home.) 

The Jammies’ schedule is online and is an all ages show until 11p.m.

Creating a city of inclusion: Modern immigration, local impact

The headlines these past few weeks have been devoted to a host of topics but none has generated more energy than those that are addressing the latest battle over the plight of the immigrant in America.

In advance of their latest musical production of “Ragtime,” Civic Theatre is offering a week out of its February 24 opening a special panel discussion event looking at what makes a city inclusive.

Created in partnership with Grand Rapids Public Library, Creating a City of Inclusion: Modern Immigration, Local Impact welcomes panelists from organizations working within immigrant & refugee services of our region. 

Panelists include:
  • Pastor Ricardo Tavarez from the En Vivo Church
  • Executive Director Susan Kragt of the Refugee Education Center
  • Program Manager Kristine Van Noord at Bethany Christian Services’ Refugee Adult & Family Programs
  • Kelsey Herbert from the Office of Social Justice at Christian Reformed Church of North America
  • Grand Rapids Public Library’s Irina Nadeau
The panel will delve into the history of the immigrant path within the Greater Grand Rapids area and share insights on how and why our region needs to continue our tradition of welcoming and supporting these members of our society. 

As an added bonus, those attending the event will be eligible to receive a discount code to be applied towards a ticket to Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s Ragtime.

This popular musical arrives back on stage at a time when the topics covered in this epic, historical show illustrates some of the very same struggles that we as a nation still continue to understand.

 Ragtime is told through the eyes of three main groups - an African American Harlem musician, a white upper class suburbanite, and an Eastern European family of immigrants - and is set during the early 20th Century.  

The panel event takes place at the Grand Rapids Public Library and is free. More information on this panel event and Ragtime can be found at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's website.
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