You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 2:06 a.m.

Performance Network's 'Brill' will likely be music to many theatergoers' ears

By Jenn McKee


Phil Powers and Sarah Ann Leahy in "Brill."

photo courtesy of Performance Network

What did you think of "Brill"? Leave a comment and / or vote in the poll at the end of this post:

In one scene of David Wells’ world premiere play “Brill,” now having its world premiere at Performance Network, veteran big band composer Jimmy Wise (Phil Powers) breaks down the structure of a pop song, explaining to his mentee (Sarah Ann Leahy) how the bridge must be both surprising and inevitable, and cast an entirely new light on the verses and chorus that precede it. No easy task, right?

And of course, songwriting is a form of storytelling, so the principles that guide “Brill” are not so different. Indeed, one of the play’s pleasures derives from the way you can’t predict where the story will go next, while knowing you’re in the hands of a wholly capable storyteller.

Set in 1959, in Manhattan’s famous Brill Building - which housed musicians, songwriters, music publishers, etc. - Wells’ play tells a story of unlikely friendship, and artistic collaboration, that evolves between a big band composer (Jimmy) who insists that rock and roll is a dying fad, and a 19 year old, guitar-playing young woman (Margie) from Brooklyn who manages to sell the beginnings of a song on her first day while riding in the elevator.

Powers and Leahy each suffered a few minor dialogue (and musical) stumbles during Saturday evening’s two-hours-plus performance, but they’re generally a strong team. Leahy conveys the paradoxical mixture of bravado and vulnerability that so often typifies young adulthood, while Powers makes Jimmy a somewhat grizzled, but nonetheless compassionate, man who feels the ground beneath his feet shifting. The stage chemistry between the two, guided by director David Wolber, simply works - from moments of levity to the play’s most intense crisis points.

And “Brill”’s script is impressive and appealing, if not flawless. As Jimmy and Margie come to reveal their secrets to one another, one seeming coincidence may test the audience’s willingness to believe, as does the speed with which the two grow close. (One’s blurted confession acts as a catalyst in this process, but even so, the relationship goes from awkward to nurturing pretty quickly.) All this having been said, Wells’ dialogue showcases intelligence and charm, and you become emotionally invested enough in the characters to forgive the script’s small shortcomings.

From a design standpoint, special mention must be made of Daniel C. Walker’s fabulous set, which cleverly fleshes out the play’s third character: the Brill Building itself. By showcasing Jimmy and Margie’s shared office at an angle, and including, beyond its door, a hallway, additional office doors, and a mail and coffee station, we visually get a larger sense of this musicians’ hive, despite the fact that we only see two of its inhabitants.

Charles Sutherland provides magnificent, era-appropriate props for this interior landscape (which is also lit by Walker), and Will Myers’ appealing sound design employs, during scene transitions, music (presumably) born in the halls of the Brill Building, as well as the voices of sound engineers at work in a studio. Costume designer Monika Essen, meanwhile, further emphasizes the contrast between Jimmy and Margie, dressing the former in suspenders and collared shirts, while the latter wears rolled up jeans and a scarf that hangs from her high ponytail.

Finally, music necessarily plays a key role in “Brill,” and Frank Allison’s original songs fit within the story exceedingly well, aided by R. MacKenzie Lewis’ thoughtful music direction and arrangements, which help achieve the illusion of spontaneous artistic creation.

And feeling as though you’re getting to witness the birth of a song, as well as a surprising artistic partnership, is definitely part of the play’s magic.

"Brill" continues through Feb. 10 at Performance Network. For background, check out the preview article. For tickets, see the Performance Network website.

Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for Reach her at or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.


Russell Walks

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 2:48 p.m.

I loved "Brill", and while I wouldn't quibble with most of the points you made in your review, Jenn, I would argue that the coincidence you mention isn't really a coincidence at all. I guess we can't talk about this in detail without revealing plot points, but I think one of Wells' themes is that we are where we are because of the choices we make. In "Brill", both characters are exactly where they are because that's where they want to be, not because fate or destiny brought them together. I wish I could say more without giving away too much, but one of the joys of "Brill" is that it never turns the expected corner, and I absolutely don't want to spoil that for those haven't seen it. And if you haven't yet spent an evening with Margie Lessor and Jimmy Wise: Do yourselves a favor and see "Brill". It's funny, and touching, and challenging, and I promise you'll head home whistling.

Jenn McKee

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 7:21 p.m.

The coincidence that I'm alluding to, and not spelling out for fear of giving away surprises in the story, is - SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading if you haven't yet seen the show! - the fact that the daughter of this songwriter's first love, the one that got away, happens to be a promising young songwriter herself. I like the way the tale ends, and the coincidence didn't keep me from enjoying the overall show. I just had this thought while watching the show unfold and tried to at least mention it, even if vaguely, in my review. As I mention above, I also really liked the way the story took various turns, so you couldn't see where it was going next.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 2:55 p.m.

My wife and I really liked the play. David Wells did a great job of showing the transition from the "traditional" musical era to the explosive rock and roll era. Hot shot radio disc jockeys now fed the tunes to teenagers who had a little disposable income---which fueled huge record sales of cheap 45s. He captured this game change perfectly. He then showed compassion for the "old guard" writer who got mentored into the new era by a hip young woman.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 1:35 p.m.

We, too, joined the audience last night for Brill. I agree with most of McKee's review; especially the scenery! It's always a treat to see how designers transform that space! I thought, too, that Powers and Leahy had great chemistry. Unfortunately, as excellent as her acting was, I found her voice grating. Perhaps it was that she was forced to sing in such a high register? My heart went out to Powers, as he was valiantly fighting off a rotten cold. He really did an exceptional job of powering through. Overall, a fun evening, as live acting often brings to the table.

Alan Goldsmith

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 11:39 a.m.

We decided to check out Brill during the preview run because of the Frank Allison musical contributions. Very entertaining play! Phil Powers and Sarah Ann Leary were outstanding and the screenplay by David Wells was the perfect balance between tugging at the heartstrings and laugh out loud. Nice out of tune piano added to the believability. I'll be watching for future projects from Wells, Powers and Leary in the future.