“We love a good ghost story. How about you?” Never Can Say Good-bye film in development PLUS Slipstream Theatre event AND Shih Tzu res-cue!

Never Can Say Goodbye

Never Can Say Goodbye

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (particularly for those provincial social media naysayers … who aren’t listening anyway), the internet brings the world together in fun and surprising and interesting ways, breaking down geographic boundaries and uniting people by affinity (as opposed to arbitrary constructs of place and time). Read The World is Flat. No, really. Go read it.

Writing this blog has introduced me to a documentary filmmaker in Toronto (click here) and allowed me to review a short film by an animal advocate whom I’ve never met but feel as though I have (click here). It has helped me connect with and learn from fellow bloggers (click here) and has given me the opportunity to assess the work of local theatre groups (click here). I even got a shout out from JB Bernstein, the subject of the Disney film Million Dollar Arm, over my review of that fabulous flick: “It means a lot to hear a review like this. This was a very personal story, and to know that I was able to reach even one person with our message it was worth all the work.”

Ok … enough patting myself on the back …

My downright caustic review of the latest Transformers installment caught the attention of Traverse City-based independent filmmaker Theresa Chaze (click here for her website). She is also a published author, experienced video producer, and accomplished communications professional, and she is hard at work launching her new film Never Can Say Good-bye. I was honored when she asked if I would read her script and offer my thoughts.

(And the animal lover in me adores this part of her impressive bio: “As the media specialist for Angel Protectors of Animals and Wildlife, she produced several public service announcements and micro-documentaries. The messages remained informative and promoted positive action to save our nation’s wildlife.” Yes! Another of her potential projects is a TV show about equine therapy for veterans – Horses and Heroes.)

Theresa Chaze

Theresa Chaze

Never Can Say Good-bye reinvents the reincarnation conceit (Christopher Reeve’s/Jane Seymour’s 1980 film Somewhere in Time, Ellen Burstyn’s 1980 film Resurrection) in the guise of gothic paranormal psychodrama (Nicole Kidman’s 2001 film The Others, Julie Harris’ 1963 film The Haunting, Deborah Kerr’s 1961 film The Innocents). The plot concerns two families united by a doomed marriage in the 1950s and explores the dissonant legacy that familial discord has had on subsequent generations. (See the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County for another take on this thematic concept.)

I finished reading the script earlier this week. It is so well done and layered and clever. I love the notion of turning a ghost story on its head through the lens of reincarnation. I thought the characters were all clearly and thoughtfully drawn, and the script is definitely a page turner in the best sense. The disparate threads cohere in a denouement that is both chilling and poignant. The dialogue is believable, and the insular college-town setting (somewhere in northern Michigan, I believe) lends a nice chilly, hierarchical vibe.

Different actors are reported to have been attached at various points, including Lauren Holly, Bill Hayes, and Dyan Cannon. Stanley Livingston is connected to direct. Obviously, “name” performers would bring added attention to the project, but I daresay a cast of unknowns would keep audience attention focused on the narrative and the dense web of challenging relationships therein.

And, as in seemingly all creative efforts these days, there is a crowd-source funding campaign afoot through Indiegogo – you can donate here. From the campaign’s page …

We love a good ghost story. How about you? We are not talking about films that gross out the audience or are so dependent of special effects that the producers forgot to give the characters personalities or have plots that are based on clichés or simply don’t make any sense. Much like Dark Shadows, Never Can Say Good-bye is based on suspense and plot twists that will scare the socks off the audience and make them suspicious of the dust bunnies under their beds.

Best of luck, Theresa – hope this script makes it to the silver screen soon – it’s a keeper!

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Slipstream LogoMy pal Bailey Boudreau (with whom I appeared in Farmington Players’ production of Legally Blonde the Musical last year) has launched the Slipstream Theatre Initiative here in Metro Detroit, and they have a fun event this weekend. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Slipstream Theatre Initiative is proud to present a one-weekend staged reading festival of new, local works! The festival is a fundraiser for both Slipstream Theatre Initiative and Two Muses Theatre, and promises to provide non-stop entertainment.

Slipstream

Slipstream

Featuring new short plays by Playwrights Cara Trautman, Bailey Boudreau, Emilio Rodriguez, Kim Carney, Emily Fishman, Barry Germansky, Margaret Edwartowski, Katherine Nelson, Lori Reece and Josie Kirsch, this two day event offers a wide variety of material and subject matter.

Bailey Boudreau

Bailey Boudreau

The actors include Scott Romstadt, Steve Xander Carson, Miles Bond, Cara Trautman, Jennifer Jolliffe, Cindi Brody, Katie Terpstra, Alexander Henderson Trice, Claire Jolliffe, Maxim Vinogradav, Nick Kisse, Joshua Daniel Palmer, Josie Kirsch and Bailey Boudreau.

All proceeds will go to the 2014-2015 seasons of Slipstream Theatre Initiative and Two Muses Theatre, both non-profit organizations.

  • What: Original Works Weekend
  • When: Saturday July 19th, 7:30 pm & Sunday July 20th, 5:00 p.m.
  • Where: Two Muses Theatre inside the West Bloomfield Barnes and Noble
  • How Much: $10, additional donations accepted (tax-deductible)
  • Contact: InsideTheSlipstream@gmail.com , www.SlipstreamTI.com

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And this is just something that I needed to capture – and why not put it in this particular crazy quilt of a blog entry …

Shih TzuSo, I’m going to lunch yesterday with my colleagues Mike and Jan and I see a Shih Tzu or something (no tags, but a collar) running about the busy traffic on Middlebelt. We lure the dog into a yard with a rattle-y container of gum, and the people who live in the house say, “We saw him running around.”

Really? And you didn’t do anything?

They give us some twine which we fashion into a leash. I wander about this neighborhood while Jan and Mike go to the drugstore to get a real leash (which of course they don’t carry – my mom always says, “Always have a leash in your car.” I will now).

As I stumble around using this dog like a divining rod to see if he will lead me to his home (he didn’t – he was kind of a cute dingbat), up rolls from within the neighborhood a Grand Marquis painted an ugly orange red and on tires the size of small boulders. The gentleman driving the car, not saying “thank you,” grumbles, “My dog.” I say, “What’s his name?” Surly reply, “Bear.” (Really, a Shih Tzu named “Bear”?) The dog did indeed reply to the name, at which time the man got out of the car, lifted the dog roughly by the collar, smacked it on its side, and said, “We’re goin’ home.”

So, who wants to kidnap a Shih Tzu with me? Yes, we drove back through the neighborhood to confirm that he and “Bear” do live there. And, after work yesterday, I drove by the house again where the dog lives, and I met the teenage boy who clearly loves him very much. Let’s hope for the best.

If you want to know where I got this love for all creatures great and small, please check out my mom’s latest wonderful blog entry “that is my medicine” here.

And read about friend Beth Kennedy’s adoption of “Nacho the Cat” here!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.” Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

- George Santayana

 

This quote seems apropos, strangely enough, for the latest summer blockbuster to come down the pike: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a somber, sociopolitically murky take on the “man vs. monkey” classic sci-fi mythology rebooted in 2011′s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Rise gave us a poignant tale of one man’s (James Franco) heartfelt connection with his evolutionary forebear (the chimp Caesar) as he searched for a cure for his ailing father’s (John Lithhow) Alzheimer’s. That film dealt with themes of a medical research industry that has little regard for nature (or for any of us, for that matter) and of the inevitably that man’s own hubris will lead to our destruction at the hands of the ecology with which we endlessly tamper.

The plot of Dawn is a logical continuation of the Pandora’s Box opened in that earlier film where primates who had been subject to cruel experimentation exact their revenge. Dawn is set ten years after Rise and depicts a society where humans have been decimated by a virus unleashed through the same experiments that gave the primates their super intelligence.

On the outskirts of San Francisco, Caesar and his followers reside in a commune that resembles something across between Return of the Jedi‘s Ewok village and a guerrilla (sorry) warrior encampment. On the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, a small band of not-scruffy-looking-enough humans are barely hanging on, living in what looks to be the Presidio, retrofitted as a refugee camp.

Things start to go sideways when a small party of humans led by ape-sympathizers Keri Russell (The Americans) and Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) set off into the simian-occupied forest to jump-start a dam that could provide much-needed electricity to all. This sets off a chain of events wherein the primates, justifiably mistrustful of humanity but led by Caesar who still has a James Franco-sized hole in his heart, decide to help the humans but are then betrayed by man and fellow ape simultaneously.

Gary Oldman, who has demonstrated that he is a jackass in real life, fortunately plays one on screen here as well. While Russell and Clarke are in the woods, he is actively stockpiling weapons to use against Caesar and his brood. As you might predict from the previews (and even the film’s poster) the apes discover the weaponry and make plenty good use of it against the humans.

Caesar finds himself on the wrong end of a monkey-sized coup (shades of Orwell’s Animal Farm), and the remainder of the film is spent with the audience wondering who will take charge of the chaos. I won’t spoil the ending, but the film resolves itself in a way that will satisfy both fans of the original series and those unfamiliar with the earlier films.

Directed pretty solidly by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), the movie is too long by 20 minutes and suffers a bit for having none of the sweetness of its predecessor. Given this installment’s subject matter and the progression the overall narrative ultimately has to make toward Mr. Posturing Charlton Heston showing up one day in a rocket-ship to see the Statue of Liberty in pieces and to exclaim “damn dirty ape!”, the darker tone is understandable.

Clarke and Russell are adequate as the soulful scientists who see themselves and their people darkly reflected in the increasingly contentious simian society, but Oldman is a hammy mess with a sloppily written character – like he’s recycling his Commissioner Gordon portrayal by way of Rod Steiger … on a really sweaty bad day.

There is a thematic density to the script that occasionally overpowers the popcorn fun with social commentary pretensions – a la The Dark Knight Rises. However, the implications for our present-day life are interesting and thorny: what devastating impact unfettered access to guns and ammo and other firepower can have on a society caught up in simple-minded bloodlust; how quickly our sophisticated human systems, processes, and other governance can slide right off the rails when faced with epic crisis; and who or what is really the dominant species on this planet when the chips are finally down.

The true star of the film is Andy Serkis with his motion capture performance as Caesar. His haunted eyes and physicality convey the pointed sadness of a leader watching his new society devolve into all the ugly excesses of the prior one – try as they might, the simian utopia can’t escape the ugly brutality they learned from their years subjugated by human “civilization.”

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Well, you brought your family and that is terrible parenting.” Transformers: Age of Extinction

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Have you ever seen a movie so astoundingly awful that you find yourself overwhelmed, gobsmacked, dumbfounded to the point you don’t even have words?

Yeah, Michael Bay, that’s the impact of your latest creation Transformers: Age of Extinction.

I knew going in that this would be a dumb, loud b-movie. I even relished the potential for mindless fun. I’ve seen the other three, forgettable as they are – though I don’t mind Dark of the Moon too much (either as a Pink Floyd album or as a Transformers flick). And, yes, Michael Bay has gotten to a point where every film he makes is him flipping the proverbial bird at liberal Hollywood … and at good taste.

But, good googly moogly, this installment may be final evidence that Bay’s cinematic nervous breakdown is totally complete.

I don’t even know if it’s worth bothering to summarize the plot. Mark Wahlberg, looking like a sad and puffy plumber in T-shirts two sizes too small, plays a down-on-his- luck single dad and robotic engineer (yeah, I know) in Texas who discovers a dilapidated semi-truck embedded in a dilapidated movie theater (yeah, I know). Of course, every shot is art-designed to look like a sepia-toned Abercrombie & Fitch ad … or a Buick commercial … all grungy, wholesome Americana.

Well, duh!, the truck turns out to be Autobot leader Optimus Prime hiding out from big bad CIA operatives led by Kelsey Grammer (yeah, I know) who is hunting down all the Transformers to mine their metal skin for something called “Transformium” (yeah, I know) that Stanley Tucci (shamelessly aping Steve Jobs) will use at his fabulously appointed tech company in Chicago/Hong Kong to create America’s own army of robots to defend us from future alien incursions (yeah, I KNOW).

It’s just not even any fun to ridicule this movie. The film is so self-consciously horrid that it’s like shooting rubber bands at a Teflon skillet.

The movie runs an interminable three hours, more or less, and is an unending series of chase scenes and things-blowed-up-real-good and tin-eared dialogue. I thought Zack Snyder was my go-to cinematic caveman, but I’d forgotten about Big Daddy Bay, whose male insecurity manifests itself in an avalanche of phallic images and orgasmic explosions and flag waving (?), not to mention some rather kinky torture scenes. Is this a kids’ movie? Ah, Michael Bay and his angry inch.

It goes without saying, that the heroes (whomever or whatever they are exactly) win the day and leave things wide-open for the inevitable sequel. This involves murdering a gaggle of CIA agents (cause the gubment is BAD, see?), destroying pretty much all of Hong Kong (cause no one is supposed to like the Chinese but they spend a lot of money going to movies so we’ll blow up Hong Kong cause it’s all sorta British and doesn’t really count), planting or not planting or destroying or flying away with some cosmic “seed” (subtle metaphor there!), and assorted other mayhem and corny one-liners all too inconsequential to delineate.

This movie is like comic book porn for FOXNews aficionados.

I suspect the next movie will be four hours long, with even more randomly racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic images and themes all edited together in the most confoundingly inept way possible.

(I suspect some internet trolls will tell me I’m mixing personal politics into my “objective” review. My blog. My site. Never said I was objective. What reviewer is? Viewing a film is a subjective, singular experience. Neener neener neener.)

And, in the inevitable fifth (!) Transformers movie (yet, only three Godfathers!), another A-list actor undoubtedly will be slumming it. At least in this “film,” Stanley Tucci (unlike franchise vets Frances McDormand and John Turturro) wisely realizes he is in a completely bonkers enterprise, allowing his character to just start screaming out obscenities like he’s having a Tourette’s-fueled meltdown.

Watching this film, I felt like joining him. It was pretty much the only joy I had the whole three hours.

I take that back. The greatest joy was that friends Jim and Sean braved this crap with me. And that, between our rounds of church pew giggles and guffaws (we weren’t the only ones doing so, I might add), they were jotting down all the godawful lines they couldn’t wait for me to include in this review. (In fact, I kept getting texts from Sean today asking, “When are you going to post it?!?!”)

  • From Sean: “I think you should definitely note that, thankfully, the movie is left with a cliffhanger, paving the way for Transformers 5! ‘When you look at the stars, think of them as my soul…’ – Optimus Prime.” Even Gary Cooper couldn’t have sold that clunker of a line.
  • From Jim: “Here’s your title … you know that quote thing you do? When Wahlberg is roughing up Tucci, blaming him for all the turmoil, Tucci replies, ‘…Well, you brought your family and that is terrible parenting.’” Tucci is a touch wittier than a CGI robot, so at least that gem elicits a chuckle or two … and is a nice little indictment of anyone who brings their kids to see this dreck.
  • From me: at the film’s conclusion, Nicola Peltz, who plays Wahlberg’s Lolita-90210 daughter, intones, “We don’t have a home, dad. It blew up.” No kidding.

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SUP YogaOn a totally unrelated note, my pal Alli asked me to give a plug to her yoga practice here in Ann Arbor. In fact, maybe this is the perfect antidote to the pain of seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction. That, PLUS you should go adopt a homeless animal (or two or three) – truly! THAT is some joy!

Here’s what Alli wrote …

“This is a little something to get people hopefully interested in SUP yoga. It’s a fun new activity and I really would like to see people get into it. It’s changed my life for the better. SUP Yoga is the art of moving and finding your center on a paddle board. I specialize in beginner classes. It is all done on water and it is an excellent opportunity to realize that one isn’t broken and that you can still do the most amazing things at any point in your life. It’s fun to float around and see the world from a new perspective. Thanks, Roy :)More info at (734) 680-0904 or yoginifadia@hotmail.com  

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Maybe next time, McCarthy. I believe in you. Tammy (2014)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Melissa McCarthy’s latest comedic opus Tammy is like a crass redneck cousin to Barbra Streisand’s/Seth Rogen’s similarly themed The Guilt Trip. That may seem like a slam. It’s not. I enjoyed both movies, flawed though they are, particularly given that exceptional performers can sell the thinnest of scripts.

Where McCarthy stumbles a bit more, however, is that she helped write the slight script for her starrer. Ouch.

What other movies are in Tammy‘s DNA? If Nebraska and McCarthy’s own Identity Thief had a cinematic baby, it wouldn’t be that far afield from Tammy, which depicts a shaggy dog heroine (McCarthy, natch) on the lam with her bewigged and besotted (as in drunk) granny (Susan Sarandon!). Heck, throw in a touch of Sarandon’s own twenty-five-year-old summer blockbuster Thelma and Louise for good measure.

Tammy’s life is a mess. She nearly totals her jalopy when she hits a deer on the way to her crappy fast food job. (In one of the movie’s more touching moments, Tammy lays down on the highway, gets face-to-snout with the deer, and talks the little fellow back into sprightly, white-tailed-scampering-across-a-field life. I liked that part. A lot.)

Tammy gets fired from said crappy job for being late (because of the deer miracle), throws ketchup packets at her now-erstwhile boss (McCarthy’s real-life husband and the film’s director Ben Falcone), comes home early to discover her hubby (a suitably golf-caddy skeezy Nat Faxon) serving a romantic dinner to her neighbor (Toni Collette, wasted here), and runs home (two doors down) to her mother (Allison Janney, dependably ringing gold from nothing).

Sarandon’s character, who lives in Tammy’s mom’s spare bedroom, already has a suitcase packed and can’t wait to provide the ancient Cadillac and limited funds ($6700) necessary for her and her granddaughter to skedaddle from small-town life and go see the spectacle that is Niagara Falls.

Just like The Guilt Trip (where Streisand’s character wanted nothing more than to see the Grand Canyon), all manner of comic disruptions keep Sarandon’s and McCarthy’s characters from their destination. Like Rogen and Streisand, Sarandon and McCarthy also end up in a barbecue restaurant where Sarandon meets cute with a potential beau (Gary Cole, playing it rather subtle for once). Unlike The Guilt Trip, Tammy heads in a decidedly cruder direction, involving Cole and Sarandon and the backseat of that decrepit Cadillac. Ewww.

(The fact that I’m giving point/counterpoint between two failed comedies released within 18 months of each other is indicative of two things: 1) my relative lack of taste and 2) the fact that Hollywood really has no new ideas. It could be worse. I could be reviewing Transformers.)

Tammy is entertaining. I laughed heartily at McCarthy’s antics (just as I did during The Heat or Bridesmaids). I also found myself moved by her ability to telegraph so pointedly the hurt of someone who lives on the margins, either by choice or happenstance. McCarthy can inhabit a character like no other. Problem is it’s the same character, and, while I like and can relate to this person she plays (and her penchant for wearing Crocs), I’d like to meet someone else … soon.

Sarandon is a hoot, particularly in her early scenes, also offering us a caustic comic portrait of someone who refuses to be consigned to the periphery. Her performance is derailed mostly by the script,which turns her into a Golden Girls sexpot for no discernible reason at the midway point.

Kathy Bates sparkles as Sarandon’s pet food store magnate/lesbian cousin (yeah, it’s that kind of movie) who lives in one of those beachfront homes that only exist in Hollywoodland. She gives Tammy and her grandma a warm meal, a roof over the heads, and one fabulous July 4th wingding. Despite the improbability of Bates’ surroundings, she grounds the movie just as it seems likely to run right off the rails, as Bates beautifully walks that fine line between satire and heartache that has been her specialty since Misery.

Mark Duplass (Zero Dark Thirty) is also a source of warmth as Tammy’s suitor Bobby, cursed as he is to babysit his philandering father (Cole). The quiet scenes between McCarthy and Duplass are when the film is at its finest (not unlike those charming moments between Kristen Wiig and Chris O’Dowd in the aforementioned Bridesmaids). All the cartoonish chaos stops for a moment, and two believably broken souls connect as kindred spirits.

That is the movie I hoped to see tonight. Maybe next time, McCarthy. I believe in you.

[NOTE: I've been suffering from a wicked cold this entire holiday weekend, and this movie was viewed as a late-afternoon matinee while I was all hopped up on DayQuil. Take all preceding advice with a huge grain of salt.]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Tongues in Trees*: Ignorance is not bliss – a new appreciati​on for Ann Arbor’s Summer Festival

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Ignorance is Not Bliss

When Pat and Marjorie Lesko approached me after my recent book-reading at fabulous local treasure Bookbound and asked if I would like to be a regular contributor in their pages, I was thrilled.

[Alas, this is likely the last contribution I shall make. Another story for another day.]

However, their movie review slot was already taken. (Phooey! but if you want to read my views on popcorn epics, please check out my blog at www.reelroyreviews.com…oh, right, you’re already here!) So they said to me, “How about culture? You’re a theatre guy. You must love to write about culture. I mean, this is Ann Arbor!”

“You got it!” I sheepishly replied, fearful to reveal my true colors as a pop maven who prefers “The Harlem Shake” over Shakespeare, The Mighty Thor over Jane Austen, and Kathy Griffin over the ballet.

[You can read my first contribution to The Ann Arbor Independent about Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre by clicking here.]

Pat, ever the good journalist, could see right through my ruse. “You haven’t gone to anything here, have you? No festivals, no art installations, no opera?” The jig was up. I suspected that my seven-year-successful-dodge of anything of artistic substance was about to come to a crashing halt.

Her next comment surprised me even more: “Good! Then you’re a blank slate. Write about that!” And like rat-a-tat Rosalind Russell from screwball classic His Girl Friday, she gave me a quick “Off you go!” and clicked off the receiver.

So … here I go. May as well start at the top … Top of the Park, that is.

Entering its 31st season, Ann Arbor’s famed Summer Festival was founded in 1984, and Top of the Park, the free outdoor cornucopia of movies and concerts and activities is arguably the fest’s most famous component. Of course, the festival is so much more, running from June 13 to July 6 with many ticketed offerings sprinkled about Ann Arbor, in addition to the outdoor events. (You’ve already read about Lily Tomlin’s opening weekend concert in The Ann Arbor Independent – I wonder if Pat would let me do those interviews in the future? Hmmm. I better be a good kid!)

If you want to find yourself overwhelmed, just check out the festival’s comprehensive website at www.a2sf.org – talk about sensory overload.

Ann Arbor Summer FestivalIf I have any (feeble) defense to offer for our household’s neglect of this Ann Arbor mainstay, it may be that, for a Tree Town neophyte, all of this activity can shut down a person’s central cortex. If you don’t know where to start or even how to navigate the various locations and parking challenges therein, you might be tempted to just to head to the Rave or Quality and watch the latest Channing Tatum/Michael Bay/Pixar offerings with their predictable start times, easy access, and pre-digested storylines.

However, the evil geniuses at the festival must have anticipated this quibble, and they have introduced a mobile app (free!) that can be your pocket guide to all things Fest related. Having done a quick spin through the app, they nailed it. It’s easily searchable, responsive, social, interactive and with just the right amount of content to help you have a good time. Kudos!

So, now that I have no excuses, I turn to the people who may shake their heads in shame at my ignorance but love me anyway – my long-time Washtenaw County-based pals – for some much-needed guidance and advice. (I won’t divulge who, but I did have one comrade-in-arms who emailed, “I have never been there [Summer Fest] either. Don’t tell anyone!”)

Rebecca Hardin, associate professor at U of M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (not to mention someone who has suffered playing my spouse in The Penny Seats’ production of What Corbin Knew and helps host the fabulous radio show It’s Hot in Here on WCBN, Friday from 12-1 pm), offers,  “Highlights of past summer festivals, for me, include the acrobats from Australia towering over assembled crowds on enormous stilts, swaying among the roofs of Rackham, the Michigan League, and the Alumni Center, in brightly colored clothes. I also loved the eruption of local talent ‘from the ground up’ during a Bollywood flash mob dance moment…just look for ‘Bollywood flash mob connects communities’ on YouTube. Nothing compares to the chance to see local bands like Hullabaloo, eat local brands like Sylvio’s Organic Pizza, and just be, together with so many other Ann Arborites, grateful for the beautiful evenings.”

Clearly, Rebecca’s comments get to the heart of what makes Ann Arbor – and any of its various activities like Summer Fest – so special: spontaneity, creativity, involvement. And what a wealth of opportunities there are.

Beth Kennedy, Ann Arbor teacher and blogger (check out her witty ididnthavemyglasseson.com for a nostalgic yet fresh look at life in Michigan), concurs, “I love the music, people of all ages getting up to dance together, uninhibited,  feeling the rhythm. I love that they moved it from ‘top of the park’ on top of the parking structure down to street level and never went back up to the cement wasteland. That change alone puts people in a very festive and friendly mood. The beer garden is nice … I have never seen anyone unruly while there … a good thing. Most events are free, except for a few headliners. As a teacher, I adore that they have had the children’s bands perform here, giving them a friendly open space to play, with a receptive audience. I do wish there were more food stand choices, but those seem to be growing each year. Free movies at dark are great with classics and cult films. I will add that family ones are challenging because most kids are asleep by that time but that is just a consequence of Daylight Savings Time, alas!”

The challenges of kids, movies, and late sunsets seem to be a common refrain.

Ian Reed Twiss, an Ann Arbor resident and the pastor at Saline’s Holy Faith Church, remarks, “When the weather’s good, Summer Fest is a lot of fun to hang out and just listen to music. They have had some great high-wire and circus-type acts out on the green as well.  When we were childless, we used to go for the outdoor movies too, but haven’t done THAT in a while. We haven’t participated in any of the ticketed items at, say, The Power Center, but the offerings look great.” (As an aside, Ian mentioned another event to pass along. Summer is a month of fun but it can also be a great time to re-establish community. “et al,” a group aiming to create an inclusive and affirming environment for LGBT individuals and families in the Saline community through education and legislative advocacy and support, hosted a Gay Pride event on June 20, at Mill Pond Park in Saline.  It was a meet-and-greet, and local political leaders attended. It was co-sponsored by the Saline High Gay Alliance “Spectrum” and Diversity Circle. Thanks, Ian!)

Top of the Park definitely is the gateway for most attendees to Summer Fest’s offerings overall. One downside is that there seems to be some disconnect between the ticketed fare and what people commonly think of when they hear the words “Ann Arbor Summer Festival.”

Rebecca Biber, local music instructor, pianist, and conductor, remarked, “Is that where they have Top of the Park?  I have enjoyed an outdoor movie on occasion, because there is beer for the adults and the audience tends to have good camaraderie, yell out lines, and so on.  And some of the local bands are good.  Actually, this month on my birthday, the Fest is featuring two bands I have been meaning to see for years: The Crane Wives and the Ragbirds.  If you are up for some on-site research, I would love to drag you along.”

[Note: I did attend and it was fabulous!]

Well, look at that? My Summer Fest dance card is starting to fill up.

Linda Nyrkkanen, founder (and baker) at Flour Lab, Inc. (if you see her at the farmer’s market in Kerrytown, you must buy her cookies, eat immediately, and then buy some more), echoes Rebecca’s perspective, “I must confess that I am not a regular attender either, although I have been to a few of the free movies at Top of the Park.  The first one was the Wizard of Oz back when I was in college, and it was pretty magical seeing my favorite childhood movie under the stars with my friends. And fast forward to current times – we saw E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial a few years ago with our friends Sean and Rachel.  So fun! I don’t know if this helps you or not, but just wanted to share my limited experience.  I know the musical performances are great too, but it’s the outdoor movies that hold the most memories for me.  I think you and John should definitely try to catch one this year.”

Now that I have my marching orders, keep an eye out – you may just see us wandering about, iPhones in hand, scrolling through the many offerings, looking bedraggled, possibly dehydrated, but with big smiles on our faces as we’ve finally immersed ourselves in one of Ann Arbor’s signature events: “The Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s mission is to present a world-class celebration of arts and entertainment that enriches the cultural, economic, and social vitality of the region.” Well, all right – sounds good to me! See you next fall, Channing Tatum!

[P.S. Wonder what the heck "Tongues in Trees" indicates? One of the first monologues I ever delivered on-tage 20 years ago in Wabash College's production of "As You Like It" directed by Michael Abbott - click here ... not me reading it, but you get the drift.]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Still nursing a grudge over Paint Your Wagon? Jersey Boys (film adaptation)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, for the love of all things holy, what went wrong with the film adaptation of Jersey Boys? I wish director Clint Eastwood would go back to yelling at chairs. I wasn’t sure he could get any more out of touch, and then I saw his film adaptation of the uber-popular Broadway show.

What is truly disappointing is that the stage musical (see my review of its Las Vegas residency here) is so expertly, effortlessly cinematic in its original incarnation. Intentionally episodic, Jersey Boys (live) glides along like a classic Cadillac from one Goodfellas-ish moment to another on the exquisite chassis of The Four Seasons’ hit songs.

Yes, the book is slight, but theatre director Des McAnuff knows that with enough pizzazz, flashy choreography, smooth-as-silk scene changes, and cheeky wit, the audience will be enraptured. Let the music speak for itself.

Eastwood on the other hand, while a self-admitted music-phile, makes the head scratching decision to bury the fizzy pop tunes under heaps of bad TV movie bio-drama. Seriously, did anyone bother to tell him this is a musical? Aren’t we past the point of self-consciousness over the genre, with ten-plus years of hit tuner films (ChicagoMama Mia!, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, Les Miserables) – not to mention tv series (GleeNashville) – under our collective belt?

Unfortunately, the majority of Jersey Boys‘ musical numbers on film are truncated to a verse and a chorus or used as background (playing on a radio!) while the actors – in bad wigs and later even worse old age makeup – struggle to make the life events of The Four Seasons interesting.

The ensemble cast soldiers through, but only Christopher Walken emerges completely unscathed. At this point in his career, that man could show up on an episode of The Bachelor and make it seem interesting.

Everyone else displays pained expressions as if they know Eastwood has ground this Tony Award-winning show to pulp. I was taken with Vincent Piazza (“Tommy DeVito”) and Erich Bergen (“Bob Gaudio”) who both exude a suitable amount of sparkle and nuance; I just wish they had been in a better movie. Sadly, John Lloyd Young (“Frankie Valli”), who won the Tony for his uncanny vocal pyrotechnics on Broadway, just seems constipated for the film’s entire 2 1/2 hour running time.

The only moment – and I mean the only moment – the movie truly comes alive is during the closing credits (!) sequence. Finally, we get a full-fledged musical number (“Oh, What a Night”), with joy and buoyancy and, yes, some cheesy backlot choreography. It’s like Eastwood grudgingly growled to his cast, “Okay, you can do some of this musical crap now. But it’s only at the end when people are walking out in disgust, popcorn stuck to their shoes. Anyone seen my chair?”

Maybe he’s still nursing a grudge about Paint Your Wagon and this is how he punishes us all? “Hey, you musical comedy kids, get off my lawn!”

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed.” The Fault in Our Stars (film)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What has happened to me? Have I been taken to the dark side by young adult fiction? Or are the cinematic charms of Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort simply to blame? (Wow, those are some monikers – what is with every millennial having a kooky name? God love yuppie parents and their precious aspirations.)

First, I lavished praise on Divergent (see here) starring Woodley and featuring Elgort (as her brother). Now, I find myself equally enthused about The Fault in Our Stars, the film adaptation of John Green’s worldwide bestseller about young cancer patients finding love for the first time. This go-round, Woodley and Elgort aren’t siblings, but rather are the oncologically-challenged paramours in question. (That took a bit of getting used to after Divergent‘s familial dynamic. Just sayin’…)

Nothing about this movie, in the abstract, is something I should have liked. I don’t like sappy love stories (e.g. Nicholas Sparks!). I don’t like cancer dramas where illness becomes metaphor for tragic courage (e.g. Love Story!). I don’t like teen angst played out by beautiful people who’ve never had a zit in their lives and live in “middle class” homes that look like spreads in Better Homes & Gardens (e.g. pretty much any show that doesn’t feature superheroes or monsters on The CW and ABC Family … and even a few that do!).

However, I found The Fault in Our Stars quite remarkable. The film is too long by a good 20 minutes, and it has its fair share of After School Special stomach-turning goop. Yet, it also has a poignant spikiness and warm-hearted cynicism that I found refreshing.

Woodley is lovely as “Hazel,” the film’s narrator and protagonist – a young woman who has spent much of her young life in hospitals, who lugs around an oxygen tank, and who obsesses about “the only honest book about death” she’s ever read – An Imperial Affliction. She is sick of being sick, but she’s also up-to-here with well-meaning folks who push her to join prayer circles and support groups. (I don’t know if it’s happenstance or by design that the film is set in Indianapolis, but Hazel’s eyeball-rolling, scorched-earth reaction to a class held in a Hoosier church basement by a twee born-again sitting atop a latch-hook-rug depicting the “heart of Jesus” had me at “hello.”)

Woodley and Elgort (“Gus”) meet cute in the church parking lot, when he, also a cancer sufferer, offers her a cigarette. See, he carries a pack around at all times, never lighting them, both for shock value and because, after losing one leg to cancer, he likes to “keep death between his teeth,” one unlit cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips.

Never ooky, always honest, continually charming, Elgort and Woodley are a luminous screen couple. Yes, the specter of cancer is always near, but the film deftly skewers Camille-esque cliche by depicting the realities of the illness and the pharmacological insanity of modern healthcare without devolving (much) into maudlin soap opera.

People who know they are dying can be really sh*tty with the healthy and unhealthy folks around them, but they also can tap into an exuberance for living life that the rest of us can’t hope to touch. The movie captures both with subtlety and nuance, with much credit going to its talented young co-stars.

Laura Dern is her affecting, capable self as Hazel’s pragmatically optimistic mother, and Willem Dafoe is a quiet hoot as Hazel’s literary hero, the author of An Imperial Affliction, who, let’s just say, doesn’t feel one iota of condescending compassion for “Make-a-Wish” kids.

At one point, Dafoe hisses, “I refuse to pity you in the way to which you have become accustomed,” seemingly putting Hazel in her place for once and for all. What he fails to realize is that Hazel, full of a self-awareness few ever achieve, wants neither his pity nor his kinship. She simply wants truth and respect. That‘s a fine summer movie message in my book.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

scha·den·freu·de: chasing after the same last scrap of bread

Thanks to the Ann Arbor Independent Newspaper which is now including me (semi-regularly) as an arts and culture contributor. My first piece appeared last week as part of their “Culture Vulture” series. A scan of the article is captured below, and the text follows. Enjoy!

Schadenfreude

 

scha·den·freu·de

 noun, often capitalized \ˈshä-dən-ˌfrȯi-də\

: a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people

By now, we’ve all digested the news that beloved, award-winning Ann Arbor-theatrical mainstay The Performance Network abruptly shuttered its doors (and fabulous floor to ceiling windows) on May 22. Possibly between the time this glib little opinion piece was composed and when you are holding it in your hot little hands, more info has come to light, but, right now, we are woefully in the dark, other than one cryptic press release and some social media nervous breakdowns that I will be courteous enough not to repeat here for all parties involved.

(Does PNT not have a PR person worth their salt to manage this situation? ‘Cause there are a lot of accusations flying about the interwebs, hot-blooded musings from troubled artists … the kind of things that make lawyers either shudder or salivate and leave the rest of us just shaking our heads in collective sadness.)

Here’s the official word: “The board of directors of Performance Network Theatre has determined that the theater is not currently financially viable and suspends all operations, effective immediately. The board wants to thank the community, actors, directors, designers, donors, and subscribers for their long-standing support of the theater.”

This is not a lot to go on, and it certainly leaves the stage door wide open for theatre pros and amateurs across the land to conjecture all kinds of tomfoolery and Shakespearean intrigue.

In the spirit of disclosure, I’m one of those rubberneckers. I’m not one of the theatrical “cool kids” in Southeast Michigan. I’m not one of the 12 performers who always get mentioned in Encore (the weekly newsblast that goes out summarizing local theatre) and I will never be nominated for a Wilde Award (especially not now). It sounds like I’m bitter. I’m not. At least not much.

PNT ClosedHowever, I respect deeply the work of those 12 performers. We have such talent and such creativity in the theatre community here. It needs to be cultivated and supported, and these are folks who have given their life’s blood (quite literally) to create some beautiful things in Southeast Michigan.

But, here’s the thing that happens with all artists at the local level, and I’m seriously armchair quarterbacking as someone who has helped found a theatre company, has acted in a lot of amateur and semi-professional productions, and who writes frequently about the arts here: artists talk a good game about supporting each other, but they still tend to behave as if they are all chasing after the same last scrap of bread.

The very profession lends itself to this cutthroat behavior: audition for a role, show up and there are 100 other talented people all wanting it, give it your best shot, dig at the other performers, shake their confidence, get the part (or don’t). And, even when you do get the part, subsist on little to no compensation, give it your all, get knocked around by critics, perform for non-existent audiences, rinse, and repeat.

I can’t speak to the business decisions at the Performance Network or what debts were racked up or how unforeseen calamities (like a burst water pipe) may have been the proverbial straw. But I do wonder about what creative hubris may result from living in perennial fear that some other artists will come along and eat your box office lunch.

A successful creative enterprise must know the audience and be sensitive to changing tastes and styles. I saw a number of shows at Performance Network, and I was always so impressed technically but I also always felt like I was outside looking in. The proceedings felt a bit hermetically sealed … like being assigned really interesting homework.

And I’m enough of a plebian that, ultimately, I’d probably rather spend my entertainment dollars to go see The Avengers than an avant garde treatment of Richard III. That is totally unfair, and really crappy of me to type … but it’s a market truth. Was Performance Network actually competing against The Avengers? Of course not, but did the company reach a point of insularity, inaccessibility, and cliquishness? Possibly.

There does seem to be some hope ahead as a new venture is rising from the ashes – something called Theater NOVA, the mission statement of which (according to their Facebook page) reads: “Creating a more sustainable model of non-profit theatre, through innovation in production/administration, commitment to artists, and true accessibility.” It’s that last word that rings truest. And I hope they mean it – accessibility … of content, for talent, for audiences. That is key. I wish them luck and hope that this momentary crisis has blown out the cobwebs, popped the pretensions, and lit a fire for improved business management. [Check out the latest developments - all seemingly positive - here. And the final resolution from the board as reported here.]

The preceding opinions are not likely to make me very popular in Southeast Michigan’s theatrical community. In fact, they may get me banned for life. I hope not, but, from monitoring social media, I seem to be alone in this perspective. That’s depressing. Successful artists know how to set up the “big tent” and invite everyone in. A closed ecosystem that just cycles through the same resources will always stagnate.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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Zippy, socially incendiary fun with a side of self-mythologizing: Motown the Musical in Chicago

Somewhere between the toxic camp of Dreamgirls and the theme park spectacle that is Motown the Musical, the real story of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross lives.

Currently playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, the Broadway transplant tells the tale of Motown Records’ founding and (ostensibly) the true life story of its chief mastermind Gordy and of his key preoccupation/inspiration call-her-MISS-Ross.

(Yes, this Metro Detroit resident – yours truly – had to travel to Chicago to see a musical about the Motor City. Ah, show biz. Why this tuner isn’t in permanent residence at Detroit’s Fox Theatre I will never know.)

What I enjoyed about the show is how seamlessly it blends all of the magical hits of the Motown era into one narrative, running the gamut from Joe Louis’ historic title bout victory to the Detroit race riots to Motown’s iconic 25th anniversary television special.

The ensemble is unbelievable. A relatively small cast literally portrays hundreds of characters, many of them etched into our collective memories: Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and on and on.

For the most part, the cast – who must have a thousand dressers backstage and racks upon racks of costumes and wigs – avoids devolving into cheap mimicry, giving us fully realized, albeit brief, glimpses into the lives of these pop music celebrities.

A few moments made me wince, particularly the portrayal of a young Stevie Wonder, but that may have just been my oversensitivity at the strange chuckles from an audience who seemed to find Wonder’s blindness a source of amusement.

I don’t know how this cast does this jam-packed, high energy, Jerome Robbins-on-caffeine-pills show night after night. They must have the aerobic health of decathletes.

Clifton Oliver as Gordy and Allison Semmes as Ross acquit themselves in a lovely fashion with roles that are just a bit too idolatrous. Given that Gordy is a producer, I guess that adoration is unsurprising.

Semmes gives a nuanced performance, introducing as much critique of Ross’ famed ambition as she was likely allowed, evolving from 17-year-old hopeful to seasoned diva before our very eyes.

Other standouts are Nicholas Christopher who gives us a sweet-hearted, nervous-headed Smokey Robinson (providing the show’s best comic moments) and Jarran Muse whose Marvin Gaye is both epic talent and maddening flake.

This isn’t a bad show. In fact it’s quite delightful. However, it is too long by at least 30 minutes. And at times the manner in which fairly significant historical moments are reduced to song and dance amidst pretty fantastic digital projections is a little goofy.

I wanted to love this show. I wanted to leave the theater with all of these marvelous songs dancing through my head. At times, however, I felt pummeled by Gordy’s self-mythologizing, to the point I wanted to spend the rest of my life listening to hair metal.

Go for the spectacle, the amazing costumes, the brilliant use of light and minimalist set pieces, but prepare yourself for a marathon. The talented cast redeems a marginal book and does yeoman’s work reminding us why Motown’s canon was and is such zippy, socially incendiary fun.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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Empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache: Laura Benanti at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club

Benanti with my mom and me

Benanti with my mom and me

On this Tony Award weekend, we had the privilege of meeting a fabulous Tony-winner – Laura Benanti – last night at Indianapolis’ The Cabaret at the Columbia Club.

The Columbia Club

The Columbia Club

You might recall last fall that I was a staunch defender of NBC’s production of The Sound of Music (click here), which I thought suffered unfairly from a lot of social media-fueled schadenfreude. The one element that did not need defending, by me or anyone else, because it was universally lauded as perfection, was the performance by Laura Benanti as the Baroness.

Roy and Susie with poster

Roy and Susie with poster

I am happy to report that she is even more terrific in real life.

Benanti with my dad

Benanti with my dad

Throughout her fizzy cabaret show, not a note is missed – musically, comedically, thematically. She is one of the most engaging performers I’ve ever had the privilege to observe.

But even more importantly, she is kind and down-to-earth and real.
My mother and I accidentally ran into her at the elevator right before her performance. Rather then keep her distance, she walked right over to us, and with an effervescent smile, queried, “You’re coming back, aren’t you?” Of course we were! And, even though she had a two hour set to get herself psyched up for, she stood there and talked to us for several minutes.

 

 

 

I might add that she is just as gracious with all of her fans following the performance in what otherwise can be sometimes awkward for both audience and performer: the dreaded meet and greet. She takes time with each and every one and genuinely connects with all.

Almond with me and my mom

Almond with me and my mom

With my starstruck gushing aside, what about the performance itself? It is such great fun – a brilliant blend of soaring vocals, crack comic timing, cheeky irreverence, and poignant character analysis. The essence of what makes cabaret such a viable art form.

The Big Room

The Big Room

Benanti is marvelously aided and abetted by her amazing musical director Todd Almond who is as much sidekick and partner as accompanist, composing the original tunes, vocalizing with Benanti, and offering the periodic witty aside. And, by the way, he is equally personable, following the performance, happily taking my loony suggestions of pop nuggets they can skewer in their act – notably, my latest obsession Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea’s “Problem.”

Why, might you ask was I so bold to suggest such a silly song for these accomplished musicians to perform in their act?
Susie and Roy Capone

Susie and Roy Capone

 

Well, for someone like Benanti who moves seamlessly between My Fair Lady‘s “On the Street Where You Live” to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” to Nine‘s “Unusual Way” (mesmerizing!) not to mention Sisqo’s “The Thong Song,” it seems a logical addition.

What you may gather from the preceding paragraph is that Benanti’s show is a gutsy synthesis of her tastes and style and identity. She wears all these songs easily … which is a remarkable gift. She is always herself yet simultaneously channeling a wild array of characters.
Benanti and me

Benanti and me

 

This tour is captured live on her album “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention,” recorded at 54 Below, formerly the iconic disco Studio 54. My recommendation? Buy this album now, and enjoy it like you would a cast recording before going to see a Broadway show. The album is remarkable, but seeing Benanti act and sing these songs live is something not to be missed. There are enough variances between the album and the show to keep things interesting, and I won’t spoil the surprises here. If she comes to your town, run (don’t walk) to see her.

Most compelling is the manner in which Benanti paints a picture of her life as a perpetual (though fiercely independent) underdog. About someone so talented and beautiful, that may be hard to believe, but the reality is she has always been a quirky theater kid on the outside looking in. Amusingly, she lays bare the personal turmoils of a young girl listening to cast albums, learning to play the ukulele, and dressing up as obscure musical theater characters for Halloween.
Cheers

Cheers

 

(She also isn’t afraid to go off script, poking gentle fun at the more provincial elements of the Hoosier-land where she was performing. I love my home state, but I give Benanti many props for gently reminding her audience that tolerance and compassion and humanity are essential regardless your background or beliefs. And if one can get that message across with a smile on one’s face, it makes an impact.)

I leave you with a clip of her singing “Mr. Tanner,” a forgotten gem by Harry Chapin. This number was a highlight for me both when I first listened to the recording as well as during the live performance. It definitely gives you a sense of her empathetic philosophy and ebullient heartache. Enjoy!

[All photos by Don Sexton - more here.]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.