Diana Lawrence will get a personal bonus when she returns to perform a solo show in the Ann Arbor Summer Festival 2017. She can visit with family and friends in the city where she grew up.
Lawrence, who graduated from Pioneer High School before getting a degree in piano and voice from the University of Michigan, will be presenting her original songs when she appears June 30 on the O&W Acoustic Stage.
“My work is influenced by soul, pop, cabaret and theater,” says Lawrence, based in Chicago. “There’s a focus on storytelling and interesting characters in the lyrics.”
The songs express a wide range of emotions. “Another Pretty Face” tells about someone infatuated with a person who already has a significant other. “In Missouri” delves into the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Many of the songs written by Lawrence express her personal experiences, but they have been altered to make them more dramatic or interesting. “Satellite” is an example of that as it musicalizes an on-again-off-again relationship.
Lawrence essentially writes about subjects that interest her or mean something special.
“This festival is a great place to perform for people who are really listening,” she says. “It’s an all-ages audience so I like to pick a mix of things that are catchy and provide a message.”
Ann Arbor audiences will get a chance to experience messages from all kinds of entertainers through July 4 and have lots of fun in the process. The entire festival features an eclectic mix of more than 170 events showcasing music, dance, comedy, film, spoken word, contemporary circus, street arts and family entertainment.
Mainstage performers, the only ones who are not free, include Doktor Kaboom!, Colin Mochrie & Brad Sherwood, Ira Glass and the Capitol Steps. Top of the Park entertainers include the Ben Daniels Band, Jill Jack Band, Lunar Octet and Magic Giant.
“I grew up with a real awareness of the tradition of Jewish songwriters that exists in America with Tin Pan Alley writers, like George Gershwin, and writers of the generation of my parents [Wendy and Ted Lawrence], like Carole King and Neil Diamond,” says the Lawrence, whose religious observance included attendance at Temple Beth Emeth.
“I always loved music, and it followed naturally that I would study that. After college, I got an internship with Eighth Blackbird, a contemporary chamber ensemble based in Chicago. We were doing cutting-edge classical music, and I became their first intern. I learned about making a living through music.
“When I was with Eighth Blackbird,” she says, “I started getting gigs around town and began building a freelance life. When I started working, I was more of a singer, pianist and music director. I’ve gone into composing and songwriting as a larger part of my life. I write for others who need songs and for musicals. It’s been an interesting trajectory.”
Lawrence, who is compared to Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor, describes her career as a “grab bag of things.” She has released EP recordings of her music and composed for Next Stop: A New Chicago Musical.
“I work regularly with some organizations and freelance with others,” says Lawrence, 34. “I teach workshops in singing for improv comedy and comedic songwriting at the Second City Training Center and work every week with the Chicago Children’s Choir. I also work every week with Story Catchers, which creates musical theater in juvenile detention centers.”
Another regular commitment is fronting the band Diana and the Dishes. “I’ve been working with Rob Kleiner, a producer in Los Angeles, who’s been helping the band succeed in a pop sensibility,” she says. “We’re going to experiment and see what happens.”
Lawrence has a connection to theater as music director for a production of The Sound of Music done by Chicago Women’s Charity Players, a small community company in the northern suburbs of Chicago.
The group is an Orthodox ensemble of all women doing musicals in ways that are in keeping with their religious beliefs. They perform with an all-female cast and creative team and an all-female audience except for those younger than 13.
“I’m working on a musical about the first female workforce in the United States,” she says. “The women worked in the mills in Massachusetts, and they were the first women to go on strike for better working conditions in 1865.”
As much as Lawrence wants a busy work schedule, she makes sure to keep the High Holidays clear so she can listen to her brother Rick Lawrence, a cantor in Ohio.
“I think an entertainer has to understand very serious issues to make good comedy,” says Lawrence, who has toured as musical director with Second City. “Comedy is the other side of the coin, and that’s why it’s so powerful.
“I enjoy thinking about drama and comedy in music, which is a very powerful tool if you’re interested in social consciousness. I feel that is very Jewish, and I think I have a responsibility to have that awareness as a Jew and as a performer.”
Diana Lawrence performs at 6 p.m. Friday, June 30, on the O&W Acoustic Stage as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, running through July 4. For a complete schedule, go to a2sf.org. For ticket information, call (800) 221-1229.