As U-M students stream into the Michigan Theater on a Sunday evening to attend a Michigan Pops Orchestra performance, the space is alive with chatter and laughter. Known for peppering its semiannual themed concerts with videos, costumes, and guest appearances, the student-run, student-directed orchestra–in its seventeenth year at U-M–is a favorite on campus and in the community. And tonight, as “Pops Takes Flight” (this evening’s theme) begins, I’ve settled into a middle seat with my ninety-four-year-old neighbor on one side of me and my seven-year-old daughter on the other. It’s a test of trans-generational entertainment value.

The hundred-member orchestra opens with Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”–played with such passion by the string section I fear they might fall out of their chairs. An eclectic mix follows, including audience favorite “Flight of the Bumblebee.” A video backdrop features a Pops member in a bumblebee costume buzzing around campus in fast-forward. Later, when Pops plays “Superman March,” Superman makes an appearance on screen and flies through campus–with the help of a rolling cafeteria cart–and meets up with the bumblebee for extra laughs.

Eliciting smiles is part of the plan for director and U-M orchestral conducting doctoral student Elim Chan, and for the Pops board of directors. “I want to bring an experience to the audience,” Chan explains later. “It’s about the music, but I also want people to leave happy, thinking, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize this could be so great!'” In the past, Chan’s dressed as Princess Leia for a Star Wars piece. This evening, as she conducts the players (mostly nonmusic majors who’ve auditioned to be part of the orchestra) in a piece from the motion picture Up, she dons a “house” made out of a cardboard box–with colorful helium balloons attached. The balloons, however, get in the way of her baton, and the audience giggles along with her as she rearranges her costume mid-performance.

Chan says she enjoys introducing contemporary composers, pop culture, and musical theater along with the more traditional selections. One of her special guests this evening is singer Madison Micucci, a U-M musical theater senior, who appears on stage in a red gown to accompany the orchestra in “Defying Gravity” from Wicked.

I periodically glimpse my neighbor to gauge her reaction to the concert–yep, she’s still smiling. And my daughter’s been sitting at the edge of her seat the entire show, awaiting the next surprise. It’s a win for all ages.

Chan promises more costumes, more videos, more special guests, more fun–and of course, more music–when Michigan Pops presents “Revolutionary Pops” April 14 at the Michigan Theater.