“Well, the theatre is certainly not what it was.” Cats (2019 National Touring Production) at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre + my quick take on Encore Musical Theatre’s production of Fun Home

Grizabella [From the production’s Facebook page]

Cats is one odd damn show. Spoon River Anthology in leg warmers, leotards, and Capezios. T.S. Eliot was an odd man (see Tom & Viv … no really, go see it). He wrote some odd poems about cats with silly made up words that would embarrass Lewis Carroll. Andrew Lloyd Webber may very well be an odder man. He writes musicals about chandeliers and roller skating trains and upside down swimming pools. The early 1980s (when Cats was written) was a seriously odd time, one arched foot still firmly placed in Studio 54 bell-bottomed Bob Fosse’d debauchery and the other pointed at a big-haired, Jane Fonda jazzercised, Reaganomic’d pneumatic future. And like anything at the nexus of the supremely weird, Cats was – and is – a big ol’ fat box office blockbuster. Now and forever indeed.

Bombalurina [From the production’s Facebook page]

I saw it once with my mother, about ten years ago, at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Playhouse, where my mom herself had performed in her teens. My mom’s friend Myrna Bailey (at least I think it was Myrna?) had given us tickets, and we went, not exactly enthused but grateful for the free entertainment, looking forward as much to dinner afterward as we were to an evening of prancing, preening anthropomorphized felines in body-stockings. We were pleasantly surprised. At the time, I theorized that the show works better in a smaller setting. The Wagon Wheel performs everything in the round (hence the name), and the set design was a literal jungle gym, with the titular cats swinging over your head and crawling at your feet. The small space and the resulting limited grandeur made the hyperbolic concept of an army of cats meeting once each year to choose one among them to ascend to the “Heavyside Layer” seem not so utterly ridiculous.

A decade later, another free ticket, another Cats – this time at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre with my dear friend Colleen whose husband Blaine is thrilled when I go see musicals with her that he doesn’t want to see. And I love Colleen, and I love musicals, and I love free stuff.

This production is a touring production of the recent Broadway revival (which starred a former Pussycat Doll, I think?) that is pretty much a carbon copy of Trevor Nunn’s original 1981 blockbuster. It’s fine. It’s weird. And it’s fine.

Production values are top notch – lighting is evocative and compelling, sound is Moog-synth lush, and the sets and props are cheekily “Incredible Shrinking Man”-sized to imply cat-proptioned human performers. Like any given Sunday of a touring production (we saw the 9/8 show … and it’s taken me this long to figure out what the hell to write), our performance was rife with understudies stepping up for their big moments in spandex and cat-face.

Notable performances last Sunday were turned in by understudy Zachary S. Berger as kitty major domo Munkustrap (at times it felt like he was auditioning for the part of Thomas Jefferson in 1776 … or Hamilton … and that’s a compliment; someone get him into one of those shows and out of a cat tail ASAP); Keri Rene Fuller as a suitably bedraggled and heartbreakingly left-out-in-the-cold Grizabella; Tion Gaston a moonbeam-on-gymnastic-steroids as Mistoffelees; Tony D’Alelio and understudy Erin Chupinsky as cute-as-button feline felons Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer; and Lexie Plath channeling her best vampy Christina Hendricks as Bombalurina. Bringing down the house, though, was Timothy Gulan as Gus (short for “Asparagus”) the Theatre Cat and Kaitlyn Davidson as his associate Jellylorum. Their second act number is literate, witty, deft, and sublime. Gulan even gets in a winking critique of the kind of theatre Cats itself represents when he croons, “Well, the theatre is certainly not what it was.”

[From the production’s Facebook page]

But, good lord! These damn character names! Trying to type that previous paragraph took me twenty minutes. And if I had heard the term “Jellicle Cat” one more time, I was likely to stand up in the theatre and scream, Network‘s Peter Finch-style, “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take any more!”

I enjoyed myself more at Cats than I should dare to admit in writing; in fact, the experience inspired me to put some hurt on the gift booth as I departed (including cat-eared baseball hats for me and for my parents), which led me to wondering why this thing has had the nine lives it has had. The show is sweet-natured, a warm and comforting spectacle, beautifully staged and orchestrated, befuddling but ultimately not particularly intellectually challenging, and, on the balance, a showcase of every kind of theatrical talent a performer could possibly possess.

[From the production’s Facebook page]

I think the secret weapon is the show’s second act. The first act is kind of a rambling mess, something about a “Jellicle” (d’oh!) ball and a potential death and far too many cat puns and metaphysical gobbledygook and … leotards. The second act distills the experience into a succession of fun, poignant, catchy-as-eff numbers with cleverly drawn characters: the aforementioned “Gus the Theatre Cat,” “Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat,” “Macavity the Mystery Cat,” “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” (with some truly nifty lighting effects), and the ubiquitous “Memory” (which was the emotional gut punch Sunday that it needs to be – kudos to Keri Rene Fuller). So, yes, I’ve been humming all of these melodies in my head for about a week now and occasionally prancing through my living room like a very old and overweight tabby. That’s the power of Cats. Damn you, you odd little man, Andrew Lloyd Webber!

[From the production’s Facebook page]

From Broadway in Detroit: One of the biggest hits in theatrical history, Cats will come to Detroit from September 3-15, 2019 as part of a multi-season North American tour. Tickets for CATS start at $35 (includes facility and parking fees) and will go on sale Sunday, June 9. Tickets can be purchased online at www.broadwayindetroit.com or www.ticketmaster.com, and by phone at 800-982-2787. A limited number of premium seats will be available through Ticketmaster and at the Fisher Theatre box office. For group sales (12 or more) please call 313-871-1132 or email groups@broadwayindetroit.com. Tickets for the open captioned and audio described performance may be purchased in person at the Fisher Theatre box office or by phone at 313-872-1000, ext. 0. Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the record-breaking musical has captivated audiences in over 30 countries and 15 languages, is now on tour across North America featuring new sound design, direction and choreography for a new generation.

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[From the production’s Facebook page]

And now for the antithesis. Technically, one should not review a final dress rehearsal … but The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s current production of Fun Home, an industry preview of which I was invited to attend earlier this week, is transporting, heartbreaking, funny as hell, poignant, and beautifully crafted. So I’m breaking a cardinal rule of criticism! C’est la vie! The show opened at the theatre’s space in Dexter, Michigan, this past Thursday and runs through October 13.

From Encore’s description: “Fun Home is a musical adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. The story concerns Bechdel’s discovery of her own sexuality, her relationship with her gay father, and her attempts to unlock the mysteries surrounding his life. It is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. It is told in a series of non-linear vignettes connected by narration provided by the adult Alison character.”

[From the production’s Facebook page]

Dan Cooney, Encore’s founder, returns from New York to play Bechdel’s complex, complicated, controlling, earnest, loving, maddening father Bruce. He brings such a haunted/hunting presence to this difficult role, always believable, relatable, and therefore that much more tragic, but never overbearing or villainous. It is a nuanced and deft portrayal of a broken human being, caught up in circumstance, selfishness, and unrealized potential, fully actualized on stage with sympathy yet appropriate critique. It is nigh impossible to play the unlikable on stage, but to do so in a way that garners empathy from the audience is a feat of magic. Kudos, Dan.

[From the production’s Facebook page]

Every bit his match is local firecracker Sarah Stevens. I’ve never seen a bad performance from her, every one unique, expertly crafted, and vibrant. Her adult version of Bechdel is in keeping with her track record, yet deceptively unassuming – a “Ghost of Christmas Present” who observes and comments on the proceedings, never once actually taking part (until one very powerful moment) but utterly shaping the audience’s perspective as the events unfold. It is a warm and gorgeous performance that will speak to any child of those families that espouse good intentions yet remain riddled with tragedies large and small – children who survive each day with equal parts laughter, art, artifice, and heartache.

Laura Etnier-Austin is particularly effective in the second act as long-suffering wife/mother Helen who finally has her moment of plain-spoken truth with her daughter (a luminous and very funny Grace Allyn as the college-aged Alison), and it is revelatory. The ensemble –  including Monica Spencer, Tyler J. Messinger, and wonderfully natural child actors Joely Engelbert, Emmanuel Morgan, and Gavin Cooney – is magnificent as well – moving effortlessly from manic whimsy to quiet angst and back again.

[From the production’s Facebook page]

As always, the Encore makes effective use of their tight space, with a detailed set design that evokes the Bechdel’s historic home, cleverly adding a separate “parlor” in the wings (complete with period-perfect wallpaper) which features Tyler Driskill’s rock solid orchestra. It’s a wonderful touch that clues the audience upon arrival regarding the conscious theatricality of the show’s staging. Plus, it’s just darn nice to see Driskill and “the band” for once as they perform genius feats with a tricky score.

Run, don’t walk, to get your tickets: https://www.theencoretheatre.org

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Real Men Wear Pink … I’m honored to have been selected to be part of this year’s “Detroit Class.”

Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far … you’ve helped me be the #1 fundraiser three weeks in a row (see rankings below!). But my competition is gaining on me. LOL. It’s all for a good cause. If you feel so inclined, your donation will do wonders: http://main.acsevents.org/goto/roysexton

I was invited by the Canton Chamber to join their monthly newsmagazine last week for a taping that should air soon – grateful to Executive Director Thomas Paden and wonderful Denise Staffeld, Megan Schaper, and Kevin Ryan for being part of #TeamRoy on this campaign! Denise captured some video with her iPhone of me singing “Pure Imagination” for the shoot – you can get a flavor here: https://youtu.be/DQ1vwiQuWe8

And don’t forget “Follies” is opening at Theatre Nova on 11/7 with yours truly as “Buddy” – it’s going to be great fun: https://www.artful.ly/theatre-nova/store/events/18594

From American Cancer Society to the Real Men candidates: As a group you have already raised $13,653! Way to go! Detroit is currently #1 in Michigan and #37 in the Nation – to follow along with the top campaigns and the top Real Men click here. The American Cancer Society currently has 28 grants in Michigan totaling more than $14 million. There are ACS funded researchers at Henry Ford Health System, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Van Andel Research Institute, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University. The success of the American Cancer Society grant program is exemplified by the fact that 47 American Cancer Society-funded researchers have received a Nobel Prize!

Detroit Top 10 Leaderboard

  1. Roy Sexton – $2,888
  2. PJ Jacokes – $1,673
  3. Dr. Carlos Ramirez -$1,438
  4. Jonathan Burt – $1,301
  5. Brad Lukas – $1,286
  6. Brendan Russow – $1,208
  7. Mike Lawson – $1,190
  8. Dave Spencer – $575
  9. Jim Stocking – $450
  10. John Hicks – $300

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Magnificent Sue Booth (“Sally” to my “Buddy” in the upcoming “Follies”) in the upper left and lower right corners. And me with with talented and lovely Laurie Atwood middle right.

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon 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.

“Everything old is new again.” The Dio’s production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder + a quick take on the film Bennett’s War

“Everything old is new again,” that Boy from Oz Peter Allen once musically observed. You live long enough and you see pretty much every trope and concept repeated in some form or fashion. In 2014, Robert Freedman’s and Steven Lutvak’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was the belle of the Tony Awards, winning Best Musical among its other honors. The musical was itself based upon the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman which had inspired the 1949 Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

That said, I hadn’t seen the musical until taking in The Dio Theatre’s exceptional production (currently running), and I was struck by how it made me think of so many other works: Cy Coleman’s Little Me with its succession of bumped off suitors all played by one wunderkind actor; Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians with its episodic structure framed around a steadily mounting drawing room body count; Rupert Holmes’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood with its winking neo-operatic hyperbole; the gothic gallows whimsy of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies with one absurdly alphabetically-inspired ghastly death after another; and maybe even a bit of Neil Simon’s Murder By Death with its cavalier and circuitous satire of the entire murder mystery genre

I’m not sharing all of this pedantry to sound pretentious and pompous … though that very well may be the inadvertent effect I’ve achieved. I offer this perspective to say that I’m not sure I was completely sprung on A Gentleman’s Guide‘s source material as I couldn’t shake what felt like derivative familiarity. The plot concerns Monty Navarro, the lost heir to the D’Ysquith family fortune, and his devious machinations as he systematically eliminates the eight legitimate D’Ysquith relatives standing before him and untold wealth.  A Gentleman’s Guide tells that tale, tongue firmly in cheek, as one actor plays all the ill-fated D’Ysquiths in an episodic style that is less grand guignol and more Carol Burnett Show meets Gilbert and Sullivan.

Three paragraphs in, I’m not here to evaluate the book or music – that ship has sailed, and the rest of the theatre community seems to universally adore A Gentleman’s Guide. My task is to talk about The Dio’s production, and, as with all of the company’s storied output, the show is beautifully, thoughtfully mounted with technical aplomb, spectacular talent, pristine music direction, and touring production-level costume and set design.

Director Steve DeBruyne in collaboration with an A-list team – Matthew Tomich (set, lighting and sound), Norma Polk (costumes), Eileen Obradovich (props), Carrie Sayer (assistant direction), and Marlene Inman (music direction) – offers a show that is by turns immersive, inspiring, layered, and sparkling. The look and feel is like an unfolding storybook: arch sartorial splendor that would put Colleen Atwood to shame; family portraits that open Laugh In-style for the Greek chorus to observe the onstage shenanigans; clever digital projections depicting locales as diverse as the D’Ysquith manor, a towering abbey, and the Egyptian pyramids.  Inman has created a sonic landscape that is as splendid as it is overwhelming; the voices onstage could fill a space three times the size of The Dio. The musical abilities of this cast, in Inman’s exceptional hands, are something to behold.

Olive Hayden-Moore, Sarah Brown, David Moan, Angela Hench [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Standouts are David Moan (“Monty”) and Sarah Brown (“Phoebe,” Monty’s cousin … and dearly beloved). Moan and Brown have a deft touch for balancing the light comedy, dark themes, and vocal prowess required here. Moan is becoming a bit of a cottage industry around humanizing sociopaths, after his celebrated turns as Sweeney Todd and John Wilkes Booth (Assassins) at The Encore Theatre. Here Moan’s soaring voice is paired with a characterization that is as wry as it is poignant: an outsider always looking in, waiting for his moment to shine, even if that involves pushing a relative (or 8) off the proverbial (or literal) cliff.  Moan and Brown are at their best in the “slamming doors” number “I’ve Decided to Marry You” (also, arguably the most ear-wormy tune in the show) alongside Angela Hench (“Sibella”), depicting a love triangle gone zanily sideways. Hench is an incredible vocalist, but, at times, given the accent she employs, our table struggled to discern her lines.

Richard Payton as … The D’Ysquiths [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Local legend Richard Payton, as expected, milks every moment of excess and bombast in his multiple roles as the self-important D’Ysquiths. The scenery practically has teeth marks from his work here, and, as much fun as he is clearly having, some nuance does get lost in The Dio’s tight quarters. He is balanced by an exceptionally strong ensemble (Lydia Adams, Michael Bessom, Olive Hayden-Moore, Jared Schneider, Carrie Sayer, Maika Van Oosterhout, Mark Anthony Vukelich) also playing multiple roles. Their collective high point (other than some really funny fake ice skating) is “Lady Hyacinth Abroad” wherein Payton’s entitled queen bee “Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith” launches a series of successively disastrous philanthropic voyages to far flung corners of the globe, her exasperated retinue in tow.

I’m glad I saw A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. I’ve been intrigued about the show, but, admittedly, in the end, I’m not sure I’m a fan of the concept. It is a lot of show, and coupled with dinner service makes for a lengthy evening. However, I am a fan of The Dio and the magic they weave in Pinckney, Michigan. Their production of A Gentleman’s Guide is accomplished, polished, and impressive. The degree of difficulty which this theatre company continues to embrace (and conquer) seemingly without a second thought is, in a word, inspiring. And the fact that they consistently deliver exceptional productions with grace, inclusion, humility, and kindness makes The Dio an absolute treasure.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder runs through October 6 at The Dio. Tickets may be purchased here.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, like any household, we try to strike a balance in our choices, particularly where entertainment is concerned, hence we took in the low-budget motocross film drama Bennett’s War at my husband’s request.

It’s a formulaic sports-as-metaphor flick, but, on the balance, a likable one. Production values are that of a mid-range television pilot, and, other than country star Trace Adkins as a down-on-his-luck farmer, the cast is comprised primarily of unknowns. A few jingoistic moments made me cringe – notably a golden-hued Michael Bay-like opening wherein titular every man Marshall Bennett (a winning Michael Roark) has turned his motorcycle riding prowess into a tour of duty in Afghanistan. That tour doesn’t end well. Bennett ends up back home, injured and unable to race, his family farm facing foreclosure.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, Bennett has a beloved mechanic buddy Cyrus (a charming Ali Afshar, also serving as the film’s producer and curiously choosing to tell, in character, a couple of tone-deaf jokes at the expense of his fellow Arab Americans). The duo face down an enemy motocross team Karate Kid-style (remember that “everything old is new again” thing?), overcome a few narratively convenient setbacks, and save the farm (literally).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

You know what? I enjoyed Bennett’s War. The movie is well-cast, nicely paced, and mostly good-hearted. Bennett’s War is pleasant entertainment, zips by in a breezy 90 minutes, and doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Sometimes that’s just fine.

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Richard Payton [Image from The Dio’s Facebook page]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon 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.

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical

Collage swiped from The Ringwald’s Facebook page

Stick to the stuff you know
If you want to be cool
Follow one simple rule
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status quo
No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
It is better by far
To keep things as they are
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status
Stick to the status
Stick to the status quo – Stick to the Status Quo,” High School Musical

Watching The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical alongside an avowed HSM superfan like my husband was as entertaining as the show itself. He did his best to stifle singing along to his favorite numbers, occasionally verbalizing key lines of dialogue before a character onstage would, frequently noting (dramaturgically) to me differences between the film and the stage version. I suspect this is what it is like attending Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival with a lifelong Bard scholar? It was all kinds of adorable.

No doubt John has his own review to offer, but this is my blog. While I don’t find the HSM trilogy without its charms (well, the first and third installments at least … the second film is the Voldemort of Disney Channel tee-vee musicals … best never invoked again), I think the movies could stand a bit of tinkering, revising, and revisiting. And, in recent news emanating from last week’s D23 convention, it sounds like the Mouse House agrees.

While the HSM franchise gave us the gift that keeps on giving in Zac Efron, it also left a legacy a with a generation of twenty-somethings that it is good to be different, that you must never constrain yourself by the labels teachers/parents/friends slap upon you, and that singing show tunes is good for the soul … even in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. Whether you loved high school or really hated it, the movies speak in a cuddly and antiseptic way to the toxic socioeconomic hothouse that is public education in this country and how all of us are shaped for better or worse by the twelve years we spent there. “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Matthew Wallace as Troy and Jordan Gagnon as Gabriella

As metaphor for inclusion and a fun platform for camp, HSM is a pretty genius choice for The Ringwald, whose stock in trade is as much John Waters as it is Stephen Sondheim. When I bought these tickets, I did so as a gift for John but also for myself as I was genuinely curious how they’d approach the show. I’m happy to report that the Ringwald’s team pulls it off in their shaggy dog, Mickey-and-Judy-are-putting-on-a-show fashion, with exceptional vocals, high energy, and (mostly) just the right amount of wink-and-nudge.

The plot is paper thin but nonetheless lovely: a science-loving girl (“Gabriella Montez”) and a basketball “jock” (“Troy Bolton”) discover their mutual love of show tunes on a mid-winter ski trip, and turn their high school “status quo” upside down by auditioning for the spring musical. It’s a slight but surprisingly subversive conceit, compounded by the fact that the “villains” of the piece – Sharpay and her doting brother Ryan (think The Carpenters, just as weirdly incestuous, but with blond hair, pink plaid outfits, and body glitter) – are the theatre kids, overly protective of their turf and their small corner of high school performative heaven. Anyone who’s worked in theatre in any aspect will view this duo with a knowing smile. The theatre community waves the flag of inclusion and understanding … until you step outside your “lane” or win a role someone else has coveted or challenge the artistic certitude of another.

Kevin Keller as Jack Scott

The Ringwald’s production, populated as it is by a cast who, for the most part, would have been in elementary school when High School Musical debuted in 2006, is pleasantly reverential to the material, while not taking any of it too damn seriously. It’s a high wire act that I found, quite frankly, refreshing. Playing double duty as director and actor (“Coach Jack Bolton”), Brandy Joe Plambeck takes a breezy, frothy approach to the material, aided and abetted by his real-life husband Joe Bailey in the role of Sharpay. In Bailey’s hands, Sharpay is both comic and poignant, never shrill, and just the right side of arch. Bailey knows that a middle-aged man playing a heartbreakingly spoiled high school theatre diva is pretty damn funny in and of itself and that layering on any meta commentary or turning up his nose at the material would sink the show and his performance. It’s smart and it’s fun, and Bailey alongside his “brother” Ryan (Christopher Ross-Dybash exuding sunshine) are a hoot.

Similarly, frequent Ringwald player Jordan Gagnon brings a nicely grounded whimsy to Gabriella. In her program bio, she writes that she is “excited to be living out [my] childhood fantasies of playing Gabriella.” For the young people in this cast, I suspect HSM is to them what Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, or Mamma Mia! are to other generations. Gagnon’s affection for the material is evident. The actor knows the enterprise is a bit silly but treats it as the heightened reality it is, and Gagnon strikes just that perfect balance of nodding to the audience while believing in her bones that she is a marginalized high schooler finding her true voice in life and love. She’s a delight to watch.

Matthew Wallace as Troy

Gagnon’s real-life boyfriend Matthew Wallace (I’m not telling tales … it’s in the marketing materials for the production) plays Troy. He is at his best when it is just the two of them onstage. There is an easy comfort to their onstage dynamics that really sells their numbers. I would encourage Wallace to find that same ease in the rest of the production. He has been exceptional in productions like The Dio’s Forever Plaid and The Ringwald’s own Merrily We Roll Along. Here, however, his physicality and high energy run the risk of commenting upon the material and distancing himself from it, as opposed to immersing himself in the goofy joy of the narrative. Wallace has a fabulous voice, and he and Gagnon are so good together onstage, but Wallace at times seems to be accentuating the stereotype of the thick-headed high school athlete as opposed to realizing the point of the piece is to gently, lovingly undermine those stereotypes.

The ensemble is damn terrific, selling the big group numbers in Ringwald’s tiny space, and energizing the audience with their unbridled enthusiasm for the score. Music director Lily Belle Czartorski and choreographer Molly Zaleski have great fun with the “pop” nature of this material, and their cast rises to the challenge. Standouts are Rashna “Rashi” Sarwar as “Taylor McKessie” and Geoffrey Schwerin as “Zeke Baylor,” both of whom squeeze every bit of juice from their limited stage moments, crafting memorable, lovable, vibrant characters. Tyler Goethe also deserves a shout out for nailing every bit of the choreography – again, note that I was sitting beside a “superfan” and it was not lost on him (or me) that Tyler was on point with every single move and was utterly present throughout. Wendy Cave plays “Kelsi Nielsen,” the resident high school songsmith, awfully big. She lands great laughs, but she also skates on the edge of commentary as opposed to immersion.

Having the time of their lives onstage are the aforementioned Plambeck as “Coach” and Suzan M. Jacokes as drama teacher “Ms. Darbus,” two educators whose dreams deferred manifest in ugly rivalries and provincial manipulations, all nobly disguised as wanting “what’s best” for their charges. If there was dramatic metaphor for the crises, both large and small, of today, it’s this. Jacokes and Plambeck are great fun in their short scenes together.

Costuming by Vince Kelley is just as one would hope, mirroring without shamelessly imitating the iconic garb of the original film. I want to give a special call out to the show’s marketing materials, as well, which evoke the look and feel of the original film’s poster and set the right tone for what to expect, as does the pre-show music: “Kidz Bop” versions of early-aughts pop music hits. Hysterical! The new lighting array at The Ringwald is a welcome upgrade with Plambeck making great use of gels and specials to maximize the understandably understated set design by Stephen Carpenter, a pitch perfect “Wildcat” logo prominent throughout.

For those wondering: yes, The Ringwald’s version of High School Musical is family-friendly, but with plenty of acknowledgment to any adults in the audience that this is all one big lark, albeit one with a really nifty message of inclusion and acceptance. If you aren’t tapping your feet or dancing in the aisles during the “We’re All In This Together” finale, well, there’s just no hope for you!

Everyone is special in their own way
We make each other strong (we make each other strong)
We’re not the same
We’re different in a good way
Together’s where we belong
We’re all in this together
Once we know
That we are
We’re all stars
And we see that
We’re all in this together
And it shows
When we stand
Hand in hand
Make our dreams come true
Together, together, together everyone
Together, together, come on let’s have some fun
Together, we’re there for each other every time
Together, together, come on let’s do this right – We’re All In This Together,” High School Musical
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The Ringwald’s production of Disney’s High School Musical runs through September 16. Purchase tickets here.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon 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.

“And that makes you larger than life.” Review of The Backstreet Boys’ DNA World Tour at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena 🎶 #bsbdet #dnaworldtour

About 20 years ago, someone described me as a “Midwestern Backstreet Boy.” I think it was meant as a put down, although if someone called me that now, I would be thrilled. To this day, I’m still not sure what it meant, other than like every kid my age in 1999, I had overly spiky hair and an under-developed fashion sense that rested somewhere between that of Chandler Bing and of Vanilla Ice … by way of JCPenney.


Twenty (!) years later, the Backstreet Boys are still touring, all of them about my age, and the teenagers and 20-somethings who once screamed with rabid adoration are now (cough) middle-aged, debt-ridden, maybe a bit paunchy, and prone to sit during all but the most popular numbers, dutifully capturing every moment on their eerily glowing iPhones, grainy footage never to be viewed again.


I admit *NSYNC was always more my speed, and I have followed Justin Timberlake’s career with some unearned pride, like a racehorse upon whom I had inadvertently placed the right bet. And my husband and I have somehow fallen into the habit of becoming latter-day 98° groupies, to the point the band members actually recognize us when we show up at meet and greets. Heaven help us.


So I went into tonight’s DNA World Tour stop of The Backstreet Boys at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena with some trepidation. My friend Nikki bought these tickets what seems like a year ago, when their new album DNA was released. I was pleasantly surprised by the songs on that record, which showed a hard won humility and remarkable amount of sophistication, but I admit I hadn’t listened to it after the first couple of plays and had forgotten most of the new music. That was a mistake on my part, and I would advise anyone seeing the show to re-familiarize themselves with that album. It will help your enjoyment immensely.


Much of the first half of the show comes from that album, but DNA’s nuance gets lost in the cavernous environment of an arena. That’s a shame. The Boys might have been smart to take this album on a club tour, not unlike the one “Madame X” Madonna is launching soon. Nonetheless, I was struck by the incredible vocal prowess of the quintet, who sang live throughout, full voiced and powerful. – the rare a cappella number being a particular showcase of their skills.


The set design was unremarkable, but perfectly reasonable for the setting. Replete with digital screens and glowing geometric shapes, the set did not detract, although it did not add much either. Choreography was also at a minimum, essentially The Boys strutting around a trapezoidal catwalk while wearing various shades of what appeared to be military fatigues as designed by Mad Max. To their credit, they avoided all of the modern rock tour clichés like aerial gymnastics or platforms that float out above the audience.


My mother has a couple of things she says about performers these days. She will look at stars around my age and say, “I don’t understand why they are famous. They look like they would come fix my sink.” And “Why can’t singers just stand still and sing anymore?” I suspect she would’ve said both things during this show, and when The Boys did just stand still and sing, vocals layered with silky harmonies and overly earnest delivery, they were at their best.


Band members Kevin Richardson and AJ McLean offered the most pleasant surprises of the night, the former acquitting himself as a remarkably able comic raconteur and the latter demonstrating an earthy, bluesy grit to his singing that I don’t recall from 20 years ago. I’d like someone to give this duo their own variety show post haste.


All of that said, The Boys’ strongest material has always been their carnivalesque, slightly garish, day glo uptempo numbers – “Larger Than Life, “Backstreet’s Back (Alright),” and last year’s pulsating hit “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.” Wisely, they close the show with those hits in a foot stomping rave up that has even the most world-weary Gen X’er fist-pumping like it’s 1999 again. And that alone is worth the price of admission.


My own grainy iPhone videos follow …

“Someone left the cake out in the rain.” Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Every day in America.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
Oh, no
MacArthur Park” (Jimmy Webb)

We live in uneasy times. I am beginning to suspect we always have. Maybe it comes with getting older, or maybe it’s the all-consuming nature of modern media, but I now question the golden hue surrounding historical violence for noble causes which we all once read about in our history classes. I fear waking up every morning for what the headlines may bring with my breakfast cereal.

Friday night, my parents and I saw Quentin Tarantino‘s latest auteur epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Saturday, we woke up to news that another in an apparently endless series of twenty-something, white male gunmen had taken it upon himself to drive from Dallas to El Paso to enact a hate-filled, murderous killing spree. Sunday, we woke up to news that a seemingly similar individual decided to do the same thing in Dayton, Ohio. Both men arguably were informed by a steady diet of anger and violence, entitlement and disenfranchisement: all-reaching toxic masculinity. Now, we find ourselves in another mind-numbing news cycle of finger-pointing and empty talking points, American flag lapel pins and “thoughts and prayers,” which will all be quickly forgotten days from now when a royal family member has a baby or a sitting president stirs his simmering pot of Twitter-fied bile.

The sobering theme throughout is that all those deserving blame abdicate any and all responsibility. Hollywood and video game makers say art doesn’t influence people, but merely reflects our present reality. Gun manufacturers say guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Politicians say it is a “complicated” issue and they are looking into it, often blaming a nonexistent mental health safety net they effectively dismantled years ago (through de-funding) and turning a blind eye to the campaign donations they’ve greedily accepted from pro-gun lobbyists and voters. Motivating it all? Myopic self-preservation and a willful desire to keep the gravy train of capitalism rolling along.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In essence, it is this blood-sticky mess that Tarantino seems to be directly addressing with his film. Tarantino’s own relationship with cinematic violence has seemingly transitioned from sophomoric glee about how low he could go to a genuine conflict over entertainment’s role in fueling our revenge fantasy culture.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an elegiac picaresque tale of a California that may only exist in the mind’s eye: 1969, when Hollywood, and by extension America, was at odds with itself, some of us still clinging to the antiseptic safety of Eisenhower dreams against a countervailing influence of angry young people dissatisfied with a military/industrial complex that generates nothing but hardware and heartache.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A wonderfully world-weary Leonardo DiCaprio as failing TV Western star Rick Dalton finds himself increasingly marginalized, relegated to guest star villainous turns on turgid nightly dramas. The active rejection of the Western as metaphor for American moxie was ramping up, replaced by crime dramas and superhero shows, equally as violent and just as superficial.

At Rick’s side is his stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, oh-so-charming and oh-so-casually malevolent – a beach bum Marlboro man with a secret history of true-life violence ever percolating under his gleaming exterior as he saunters through the chintzy, cardboard back lots of Tinseltown.  “More than a brother, just short of a wife,” Kurt Russell’s omniscient narrator observes about the duo, characters based in part on the legendary real-life bromance of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham.

The pair move together in tandem in uncertain waters, a couple of aging sharks whose hollow, posturing machismo is perhaps going out of fashion. The film industry is beginning to embrace a new kind of shallow, in fact: talking a good game about “method acting,” as represented in a crucial scene between DiCaprio and a wise-beyond-her years eight-year-old female actor (“NOT actress … that is a ridiculous term,” she observes) – a scene-stealing performance by Julia Butters. Next door to Rick’s groovy Hollywood Hills home resides a couple symbolic with this sea change, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, the latter played with angelic puckishness by Margot Robbie. (I admit Quentin’s filmic attitude toward women remains a bit of a problematic cipher for me, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, for now, in great part due to Kill Bill.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Anyone who hid a copy of Helter Skelter behind their eighth grade history textbooks to avoid lectures about the great violence that begat this country, only to marinate in the prurient details of the Manson Family, may guess what happens next. The La Cielo Drive home and Sharon Tate herself are synonymous with the sickening nexus of celebrity and serial murder, Hollywood and true crime. Tate is remembered not for her film work, but the gruesome way her life met its untimely end. Well, you may think you know what is going to happen, but Tarantino, in his inimitable fashion as filmdom’s resident juvenile delinquent, is going to toy with your expectations, all the while commenting mercilessly, if somehow also affectionately, on the utter superficiality of men playing cowboy in the backyard.

As always, Tarantino’s cinematography and overall framing is perfection, the movie a loving homage to buddy comedies of the late 60s and 70s, yet with a very dark undercurrent. No detail is left unturned, and it is the kind of movie which film geeks could watch forty times and still miss layers of winking commentary buried in a radio ad or billboard or prop in the background. This may be the director’s most carefully curated film ever. I particularly took note of how the soundtrack is peppered with popular ditties of the era but covered by out-of-fashion pop performers trying to stay relevant in a hippie dippy age (e.g. Robert Goulet doing his best Richard Harris on “MacArthur Park”).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Even in casting, Tarantino is commenting on the ephemeral nature of the entertainment enterprise (beautiful Brad Pitt as reasonably attractive Leonardo DiCaprio‘s stunt double?!) as well as the ever elusive desire by performers to leave a legacy.  Andie MacDowell’s daughter Margaret Qualley plays a free-spirited ragdoll of a Manson family member. Bruce Dern, a counterculture figure in and of himself, pops up in a pivotal scene as the notorious Spahn Movie Ranch’s decrepit owner, unknowingly housing an army of leering Manson acolytes whose sole desire is to take down the very establishment once central to the ranch’s Western film output. Al Pacino, another actor associated with the dramatic transformation in cinema in the 1970s, plays a maneuvering and cynical agent who lays bare the ugly truths of commerce driving the money-mad, fame-seeking inhumanity in Hollywood. Everyone is pretty damn terrific, and whether they are in on the joke or not is uncertain.

As self-serious as my analysis appears to be, the movie is a hell of a lot of fun. It is meandering, episodic, sometimes maddening to follow, Tarantino continuing to tell stories as a nesting series of parentheticals. It is both nostalgic and critical, transporting you to another era, well aware of the insidious influence that that time continues to have on us all. Tarantino’s Hollywood is populated with lost souls – TV actors on the decline, movie stars on the ascent, and serial killers on the prowl – for whom celebrity-seeking and name-making is job one, regardless what that task does to themselves, their souls, or anyone surrounding them.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I can’t reveal a thing about the ending, without spoiling a twist that is both telegraphed and unexpected. Let me say that the fairy tale allusion in the title as well as its direct reference to Sergio Leone’s blood-soaked epic Once Upon a Time in America are intentional. The film offers us a happy ending of sorts, while graphically depicting the reality of the cartoon violence Rick Dalton and his contemporaries once promulgated via black-and-white television sets. This film is both Tarantino‘s least violent film and his most. The film’s ambling pace lulls the audience into complacency, so the carnage when it comes – fast, furious, and brutal – is that much more disarming.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is at once a love letter to another time and a cautionary tale, with a chillingly implied postscript that history does indeed repeat itself. And that all of us are too vain to ever really do anything to stop it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Everybody knows the damn truth
Our nation lied, we lost respect
When we wake up, what can we do?
Get the kids ready, take them to school
Everybody knows they don’t have a chance
To get a decent job, to have a normal life
When they talk reforms, it makes me laugh
They pretend to help, it makes me laugh
I think I understand why people get a gun
I think I understand why we all give up
Every day they have a kind of victory
Blood of innocence, spread everywhere
They say that we need love
But we need more than this
– “God Control” (Madonna)

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon 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.

“Christopher Columbus!” One Off Productions’ Little Women the Musical

Christopher Columbus! Can you hear that beautiful noise coming from the eastern edge of Washtenaw County? Listen carefully. Something really magical is happening in a small jewel box of a theater on the campus of Washtenaw Community College. One Off Productions – I love that name! – is presenting Little Women, the Broadway musical none of us remember but all of us should.

I had heard of the show; I knew Sutton Foster and Maureen McGovern, of all people, were in the original run; and I believe I had heard a song or two. Obviously, the forward-thinking novel by Louisa May Alcott, depicting the inner and outer lives of the four plucky March sisters – adventuresome Jo, fiery Amy, stately Meg, and dear-hearted Beth – and their noble mother Marmee as they survive and thrive in New England in the midst of the Civil War is emblazoned in our collective cultural subconscious. However, I had never had a chance to see this musical, originally produced in New York in 2005. And that’s a shame. Grateful, however, that One Off has brought this beautiful, sophisticated score and delicately nuanced adaptation for the enjoyment of Southeastern Michigan audiences.

Lieto and Mills

As iconic Jo, Sarah Mills, wearing many other production hats including director and producer, affects a thoughtful and poised narrative arc from earnest kid to battle-tested author, never maudlin, always heartfelt, and at times delightfully comedic. I attended last night’s final dress rehearsal (which as expected had its share of 11th hour technical distractions), so it would be interesting to see how she settles into the role, adding nuance as the run proceeds.

Mills is also a gifted vocalist, as is the entirety of this remarkable cast. Her act one closer “Astonishing” is exactly that. Hearing such strong, classically trained voices in such a small and intimate space, delivering what is, in essence, a light operatic score is a treat.

Gagnon, Case, and Mitchell

Wendy Cave is spot on in the role of Amy, by turns heartbreaking and maddening in her character’s impulses but always compelling. As Meg, Morgan Gagnon is lovely and gracious with just the right touch of playfulness to offset the show’s heavier moments. In the pivotal role of Beth, upon whom hangs the story’s tragic narrative impetus, Mills’ real-life sister Rebecca Timmons is a quiet storm. She is at her strongest one on one with the other characters in the show and her final interactions with Mills are appropriately devastating. She also is a gifted comedic actor, and her timid, bewildered, and bemused take on the rather odd number “Off to Massachusetts” is a hoot.

Elizabeth Mitchell as the sum and center of the March family universe – Marmee – offers a poignant but refreshingly lighthearted take on the role. She has a remarkable and distinctive singing voice, with the acting chops to accentuate that innate talent. Her solo moments of reflection on stage as a mother trying to keep the fraying threads of her family woven together are a gut punch. And as the toxic id to Marmee’s earth mother superego, Julia Fertel is haughty fun as snooty Aunt March.

As for the men – Jon-Luke Martin, Michael Cuschieri, Bradley Lieto, and J. Michael Morgan – all have great fun in their dual roles as boyfriends and husbands and neighbors … and the occasional pirate or river troll. (Note: there are a few fantasy sequences where aspiring writer Jo’s inner fantasy life takes center stage.) All of the men seem to be having the time of their lives on stage, Lieto most especially (and what a voice!) as overeager neighbor boy Laurie. It is clear that this is an ensemble that appreciates, respects, and enjoys one another, which translates beautifully onstage.

Lieto and Mills

The musical accompaniment is divine, leaning into chamber music, with just a piano, viola, and cello. What conductor/pianist/music director Rebecca Biber is able to accomplish in the small space with her talented team (Elizabeth Marsh, Robin Bloomberg, Phoebe Gelzer-Govatos, Meghan Rhoades – performing on different nights) is remarkable. It is a lush and orchestral sound, yet simultaneously intimate and haunting

Orchestra

The set design by Wilm Pierson is simple yet sophisticated and quite impressive. Lighting cues differentiate the scenes, all of which take place in the backdrop of the family attic. Items that would normally be found in an attic double as scene props (by Jamie Sonderman, prop master) – a trunk here a toy piano or rag doll there – and the actors make great use of the space overall. It is a testament to the design and the direction as the set seems much more extensive than it really is. Costumes by Emily Betz are period-perfect, and long-time sound designer Kelvin Elvidge makes effective use of mics in the small space. Seasoned theatre vet Rebecca Winder rallies the team as the production’s stage manager.

Ensemble

You may feel like you have seen Little Women far too many times in your life: classic movie, film remakes, television productions, or stage plays. One Off’s production of Little Women is truly special, however, as it is clearly a labor of love for all involved with a clear message of inclusion, compassion, and empowerment. Do not miss it.

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Produced nationally and internationally, Little Women has been praised by critics for its ambition in adapting such a well-known story for the stage. This timeless, captivating story is brought to life in this glorious musical filled with personal discovery, heartache, hope and everlasting love.

Ensemble

Based on Louisa May Alcott’s life, Little Women follows the adventures of sisters, Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March. Jo is trying to sell her stories for publication, but the publishers are not interested – her friend, Professor Bhaer, tells her that she has to do better and write more from herself. Begrudgingly taking this advice, Jo weaves the story of herself and her sisters and their experience growing up in Civil War America.

Little Women embodies the complete theatrical experience, guaranteeing a night filled with laughter, tears and a lifting of the spirit. The powerful score soars with the sounds of personal discovery, heartache and hope – the sounds of a young America finding its voice.

8pm Shows July 25th-27th & August 1st-3rd

2pm Shows on July 28th & August 4th

Tickets here: https://www.oneofftheatre.com/

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Ensemble

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon 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.

“It’s not the circle of life … it’s the meaningless line of indifference.” Disney’s The Lion King (2019)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

People, namely but not exclusively critics, are all of a dither because The Lion King, as directed by Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book) – the latest in Disney’s unyielding march of “live action” remakes and re-imaginings of their own animated classics – is not original enough. People! Didn’t you know the “D” is Disney stands for “derivative”? That’s the Mouse House’s stock-in-trade.

Whereas once upon a box office, Disney strip-mined the works of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, P.L. Travers, Carlo Collodi, and A.A. Milne for their cinematic output (which was in itself then repurposed across theme parks, television series, video releases, toy stores, straight-to-home animated sequels, and so on), NOW CEO Robert Iger and team have turned to modern-day folklorists like George Lucas, Stan Lee, and Walt Disney himself to source and resource their intellectual property. Lazy? Maybe. Smart capitalism? Indubitably. All-American? You bet your a$$.

And like all good mythology, these stories bear repeating, whether around the campfire or the eerie glow of an iPhone. Hell, Shakespeare was just as guilty of the practice as any contemporary entertainment conglomerate. There’s a sucker born every minute. We lemmings have been ever guilty of plunking our hard-earned money at the ticket counter to re-view the shopworn and redundant.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of Shakespeare, The Lion King has often been described as “Hamlet in the jungle,” with its story of a young prince (Simba) who suffers from the machinations of a despicable uncle (Scar) and who grapples with the uneasy responsibilities of royal leadership after the untimely death of his father (Mufasa). It’s just that in The Lion King, every character happens to be a four-legged denizen of the African pride land who occasionally breaks into an Elton John/Tim Rice-penned show tune. The original animated film was a box office behemoth in its day, yielding in turn a Julie Taymor-directed puppet extravaganza that collected every Tony on earth and continues to mint money. Tell me again, why Disney shouldn’t bring The Lion King back in yet another guise to multiplexes? Ka-ching.

As I’ve often said to fellow critics, reviewing their umpteenth community production of Oklahoma! or The Putnam County Spelling Bee, we aren’t critiquing the script or the music at this point, nor even the very choice to do one of these damn shows again (much as we might like to), but rather the intention and the execution.

That said, the 2019 Lion King is pretty darn flawless and sticks its landing, even if some are scratching their heads if it was needed at all. This film is a technological wonder, marrying the heart and horror of the animated film with a hyper-reality that makes all of the stakes disconcertingly real. It’s one thing to watch a James Earl Jones-voiced Mufasa trampled by a multi-colored two-dimensional stampede of wildebeest; it’s something else altogether to watch a photorealistic James Earl Jones-voiced Mufasa in the same harrowing circumstance.

I’m not sure how kids are going to sit through this thing, what with all of the National Geographic-style eat-what-you-kill royal court intrigue of Scar (a menacing Chiwetel Ejiofor, rejecting any of predecessor Jeremy Irons’ fey mannerisms in the role) and his grotesque hyena henchmen (a slithering trio voiced by Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre, offering very little of the comic relief previously offered by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings in the original). Shudder.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As the adult Simba and his best friend (soon-to-be paramour) Nala, Donald Glover (Solo) and Beyonce, respectively, are as luminous vocally as you would imagine, notably on the ubiquitous anthem “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”  In fact, the film truly roars to life (pun intended) at the mid-way mark after Simba befriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand-ins Timon and Pumbaa (a meerkat and a warthog naturally) who teach him the finer points of not giving a sh*t (“Hakuna Matata”), and a gobsmacked Nala (think Ophelia without the manic suicidal tendencies) urges Simba to get woke and return home as Scar has made a big ol’ scorched earth mess of the kingdom.

(NOTE: one of the best and most original elements of this new Lion King roll-out is Beyonce’s spin-off album The Gift, not unlike how Madonna’s Dick Tracy-inspired I’m Breathless album had arguably more zip than the film that inspired it.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Billy Eichner as Timon to Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa is a revelation. Who knew Eichner had such a divine singing voice? And the best lines in the flick are his. At one point, he dismisses the narrative’s overworked philosophy that everything (including becoming a lion’s dinner entree) happens for a divine and glorious purpose with a stinging, “It’s not the circle of life … it’s the meaningless line of indifference.”

I admit as comfortable as I am with Disney’s master plan to take over the world with reworked, utterly unnecessary versions of old movies still readily available at our Netflix’d fingertips, even I would have liked more Eichner-style anarchy and less safe familiarity in the 2019 Lion King. As brainwashed as audiences have become, marching steadfastly from one box office event picture to the next, mindlessly apathetic toward the tragic state of the real world, Eichner’s “meaningless line of indifference” is an apt and sobering description of us all.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon 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 shall ensconce myself on the … lanai.” Slipstream Theatre’s Merry Wives of Windsor … er …Miami

Originally published by Encore Michigan here.

[Image Courtesy Slipstream]

“Thank you for bein’ a frieeeee-eeeeehnd” goes the familiar refrain from the theme song to the ever increasingly ubiquitous Golden Girls. If you had told my 8th grade self, watching these grande dames of stage and (small) screen – who, back in the mid-1980s, were enjoying a third, nay fourth, act career resurgence – that they would be as relevant and beloved 30 years later with reruns airing around the clock, their own action figures, an empire of nostalgic collectibles, and even a LEGO set, I would have scoffed. Scoffed, I sayeth!

NOW, if further you had told my pretentious, Shakespeare-loving college self that one day a sharp and irreverent Metro Detroit theatre collective would leverage Falstaff-focused comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor as a vehicle to celebrate all things Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, Sophia, Stanley, and, well, cheesecake, I would have been dumbfounded (and mildly intrigued).

Picture it. Columbus. 1997.

(In all transparency, I played jealous hubby Master Ford in a production of Merry Wives at Ohio State in 1997 that was inspired by P.G. Wodehouse. Like I said: pretentious. I know no one asked, but I volunteered that info anyway.)

Picture it. Ferndale. 2019. Director (and founder) Bailey Boudreau has delivered a light summer soufflé with just the right pinch of zeitgeist in Slipstream’s newest production Merry Wives of Windsor Miami. If you want to escape the summer heat with a blessedly breezy 70 (!) minute lark that is as much arch sitcom as pithy Bard, don’t miss this show.

People can be far too reverential where Shakespeare is concerned; we don’t need three hours, carefully curating every side character and extraneous subplot. Shakespeare was the Netflix of his day – populist entertainment – and Boudreau and his company wisely realize that playing fast and loose with the material, while miraculously preserving the language and major plot points with only the most minor (and witty) of winking contemporary adds, wins the day.

The only downside to Boudreau’s approach is that the very structure of Merry Wives prevents the audience from witnessing the Wives/Girls all assembled for a skosh too long. As the play opens, there are more than a few intertwining subplots:

  • Young suitors pursuing Ms. Anne Page (a pitch perfect Luna Alexander expertly channeling Rue McClanahan as Southern-fried Blanche Devereaux)
  • A money hungry intermediary Mistress Quickly (Linda Rabin Hammell having the time of her life as Estelle Getty as impish Sophia Petrillo)
  • A pair of identical letters written to happily married Mistress Ford (a happy-go-lucky Mandy Logsdon as Betty White as daffy Rose Nylynd) and Mistress Page (ever-poised Jan Cartwright as Bea Arthur as queen bee Dorothy Zbornak) by lecherous Sir John Falstaff (a spot on Patrick O’Lear with a lovely zest of nuanced camp as Herb Edelman as oafish Stanley Zbornak). BTW, Falstaff was a character so popular in Shakespeare’s history plays that he got his own “spinoff” in Merry Wives … you can’t get more “sitcom” than that!
  • An obsessively jealous husband Master Ford (a house-afire Ryan Ernst) who thinks it would be a wise idea to disguise himself as a rich old codger to trick his wife into cheating on him … with himself … to prove how unfaithful she is. Paging Darrin Stevens (from a different show altogether).

Photo collage by yours truly

Given all of that set up, eating up the first 20 minutes or so, the production takes a while to sort the conceit of Golden Girls-homage from the fussy Shakespearean business. It all aligns in due course, so just be patient with yourself, whether you are familiar with the original play, with The Golden Girls, with both, or with neither. Boudreau adds a clever framing device wherein the “studio audience” is hustled from Slipstream’s cozy lobby to the back performance space by a harried, headset wearing production assistant, doubling as the narrative-device character Simple (an eager and energetic Grace Trivax). It sets just the right tone for what is to unfold.

I might also add that, intentional or no, Merry Wives and the very nature of the piece couldn’t be timelier: empowering women to upend toxic masculinity (controlling husbands, manipulative suitors, philanderers, and sexual predators) through wit and wisdom, collaboration, and a good dose of shaming. There’s a nice bit of #MeToo underpinning the enterprise. That also aligns with the very progressive nature of The Golden Girls. It was a show ahead of its time, on its surface a simple bit of comic escape, but underneath a fairly biting critique of misogyny, ageism, homophobia, and classism.

We even had Ms. Frances Sternhagen take in our production of Merry Wives

Transitional music cues are lifted directly from the original show (which is a sweet touch), and costuming from Tiaja Sabrie is as 80s as it gets. Of particular note, the styling (hair, makeup, clothes) for Blanche/Anne, Dorothy/Mistress Page, and Stanley/Falstaff is broadcast-ready, immersing those characters (and the audience) in the look and feel of our beloved TV icons.

Merry Wives of Windsor Miami is a summer garden party, messy at times, riotous at others, completely unforgettable, and well worth your attendance. I suspect the cast will settle into a wonderful rhythm as the run proceeds, not unlike the finest situation comedy casts of yore. In addition to the principals, Jake B. Rydell, Tiaja Sabrie, and Alex “Cookie” Isenberg all bring heart and light to their supporting roles.

Shout out to the marketing materials on this show, as well, which cleverly set the tone for what you are about to witness. Jan Cartwright’s photography and the design by Esbee Creative are the right mix of Reaganomic-era kitsch and South Florida joie de vivre, lovingly mimicking the look and style of TV ads for the original series.

Yes, this is in our home

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the performances of Luna Alexander and Patrick O’Lear. It is a delicate tightrope to walk to make Shakespearean language understandable to an impatient modern ear, to imitate famed sitcom characters imprinted on our collective consciousness without devolving into caricature, and to keep the narrative moving apace so the audience doesn’t know what hit ‘em. Alexander and O’Lear both pull off that hat trick with aplomb.

For myself, I could watch Alexander read the phone book (do they still print those?) as McClanahan, all gummy smile, wild eyes, throaty voice, elongated vowels, and mincing walk. She even stays gloriously in character from the wings where Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia all watch the action unfold from directors’ chairs. It’s a high-flying act, and she nails it. Tens across the board.

See you at the Rusty Anchor!

Slipstream Theatre Initiative offers The Merry Wives of Miami July 12 through August 4,  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm. Tickets can be purchased at www.slipstreamti.com, by emailing Slipstreamti@Slipstreamti.com, or calling (313) 986-9156. Read more about the production here.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon 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.

“Do you still need the cape?” Spider-Man: Far From Home

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a worthy follow-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming. The first act is cutesy, cloying, and underwritten, but the sparkling, believable kids in the cast (who actually seem like, you know, KIDS) keep things zipping along.

Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Zendaya as his friend/crush/equal MJ are lighter than air, and Jake Gyllenhaal is great, popeyed, hunky fun as too-good-to-be-true Mysterio. Once the narrative takes a crafty u-turn at the midway mark, the film becomes a frisky, unpredictable, cinematic tilt-a-whirl.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film follows directly onto the events of Avengers: Endgame (making it really hard to review without spoiling anything of the previous film still in theatres). Let’s just say, Peter is haunted by a great loss, tries futilely to fill his former mentor’s very large (iron) boots (and groovalicious aviator shades), and somehow still ends up saving the day, amidst a heaping helping of adorkable teen angst. Holland is arguably the most darling Spider-Man to ever grace the screen, and Zendaya more than holds her own. (Between these films and The Greatest Showman, I can’t wait to see where her career ends up. The sky’s the limit.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The movie does explain how the kids in Peter’s high school were impacted when five whole years were lost (not to mention half of all life on the planet Earth) after that purple, hulking malevolence named Thanos jazz-snapped his Infinity Gauntlet’d fingers. Blessedly, the sturm und drang of the previous Avengers films is shed for sitcom-lite cheekiness about the absurdity of it all in Far From Home.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Just as the entire enterprise seems in peril of spinning off into a Saved By the Bell-esque goof as Peter and his buddies enjoy a pratfall-filled European senior trip, in saunters Gyllenhaal as the prototypical alpha hero, a gleaming surface that belies the cracked-pot interior of a toxic male raging against an invisible machine. Gyllenhaal is pretty underrated across the board, and it is due to performances like this: he makes it look easy to play a Ken doll gone very astray. It isn’t.

In some respects, Far From Home is both a by-the-numbers, assembly line Marvel blockbuster and a sly send-up of all the very movies that preceded it. Issues of identity and fame and pride and the very illusory nature of heroism in this modern Trumpian age of hyperbolic pettiness are rife throughout the film, including the two end credits scenes, both of which (for once) are actually worth sticking around to see.

One of Mysterio’s associates, his browbeaten dresser, harangues him repeatedly,”Do you still need the cape?” to which he responds every time with an exasperated “Yesssss!” The Incredibles, another Disney-corporate product, was the first to opine in a postmodern way about the idiocy of capes and the inherent strangulation danger of flying around with a piece of billowing cloth around one’s neck. The Incredibles‘ Edith Head-inspired superhero fashion designer Edna Mode declared, “NO. MORE. CAPES!” Yet, as Marvel Studios’ copious cinematic output over the past decade has proved as salve and welcome distraction during our stormy IRL times, sadly, yes, we all do still need the cape(s).

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon 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.

“You’re always sorry. And there’s always a speech. But we no longer care.” Dark Phoenix (and another thought or two on Hugh Jackman’s The Man. The Music. The Show. in Detroit)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Perhaps Dark Phoenix was a creative casualty of corporate wrangling via the finalized Disney/Fox combination that brought the previously Fox-licensed X-Men characters fully back into the Mouse House’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps the X-Men movies should have called it a day (no pun intended) with the far superior Days of Future Past. (Don’t get me started on the candy coated cluster that was its follow-up Apocalypse.) Perhaps longtime writer/new-time director Simon Kinberg should have just stuck with the writing (though that isn’t very good either in Dark Phoenix and not up to par with his previous work). Or perhaps we all are just (finally) suffering from movie superhero fatigue.

All I know is that Dark Phoenix is a soapy bore, not unwatchable by any means, but not a hellvua lot of of fun either.

I began this week taking in erstwhile Wolverine Hugh Jackman’s sunny, zippy one-man The Man. The Music. The Show. at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, and I ended the week with this X-Men: Last Stand retread that made me long for Hugh to show up and sing a few more Peter Allen-penned show-tunes while swiveling his bedazzled 50-year-old-hips. Hugh was a wise man to finally walk away from this sputtering franchise and spend the summer doing what he does (and loves) best. Thank you, X-Men, for giving Hugh his start in this country … and, 20 years later, for setting him free.

Dark Phoenix attempts to right the wrongs of Last Stand, an over-baked muddle from 13 years ago that first told the tale of mutant Jean Grey’s descent into madness via a cosmic-based parasitic “Phoenix force.” I know to non-geeks it sounds absurd, but the original “Phoenix/Dark Phoenix” story-line by Chris Claremont and John Byrne from the late 70s is a beloved one, revolutionary in its day for its exploration of gender issues, agency/autonomy, and how absolute power can corrupt absolutely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Don’t get me wrong. Dark Phoenix tries. Really, really hard. And that’s part of its problem. Too self-serious by half, yet slapdash in its execution, the film takes a solid cast – Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, and Sophie Turner (as the titular antihero) – portraying classic Marvel characters, all lovingly re-established in a fresh, postmodern way with X-Men: First Class, and squanders the whole shebang with heaps of illogical character motivation and turgid dialogue. As Fassbender’s Magneto cautions his bromantic rival James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier: “You’re always sorry. And there’s always a speech. But we no longer care.” True dat.

It’s a shame. It truly is. The series could have gone out on a high-note, pulling all the topsy turvy threads of time travel, lost souls, and marginalized identity into one super nova of an ending … if they’d just have followed the blueprint of the original damn comics. Seriously, look at how many Oscar winners/nominees are in the cast; yet, at times, I thought I was watching Guiding Light: The Mutant Years.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

C’est la vie. The plot, as it is, details how young Jean Grey was orphaned (or was she?) by telepathic powers run amok. Charles Xavier rescues her (or does he?) and raises her as his own, always wary of the limitless powers at her disposal. One epic space shuttle tragedy later, a now-adult Jean Grey finds herself imbued with the nuclear power of a thousand solar systems, but she really just wants to mope around, glare a bit, and throw her enemies into the sides of buildings. Chastain as some alien despot with the albino aesthetic of Edgar Winter seeks Jean’s newfound power for herself. And, blah, blah, blah … more moping, more glaring, more throwing.

Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique notes to Xavier, “By the way … we women are always saving the men around here. You might want to change the name of this group to X-WOMEN.” Now, THAT’s a movie I think I would have preferred to see. And, as poorly written as that line is, it says something about Lawrence’s uncanny abilities that it lands like the best zinger you’ve ever heard from a Noel Coward comedy. Otherwise, Lawrence is clearly just collecting a paycheck here, waiting for her contract obligations to final run out.

Photos taken by my parents Monday night in Detroit

Back to Hugh. If Dark Phoenix truly is the death knell of the X-Men movie universe, perhaps the rest of the cast should follow suit and launch their own respective concert tours. As noted here earlier, his show is an absolute delight … and also a bit surreal, given that it is the culmination of Jackman’s wildly varied career, plus a melange of influences and experiences close to his heart. It is, in essence, a two-hour midlife crisis, Vegas-style, but a kicky, charming, loving, unmissable one. [Photo album here.]

What I also learned this week is that there are two kinds of people: those who know that Hugh Jackman sings … and those that don’t. As to the former, all I had to do was mention I saw him in concert, and they rattled forth rapturous perspectives on which songster Hugh they loved the most: Les Miserables, Greatest Showman, Oklahoma, The Boy from Oz … all of which were featured in Monday night’s show. As to the latter, I was met with a quizzical gaze and a “what did he do for two hours?!”

Ah, what didn’t he do? Tap dancing to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”? Check. Channeling his best Gene Kelly for a Singin’ in the Rain homage? Check. Working through what felt like some Freudian confessionals about family, romance, and fatherhood? Check. Offering a salute to the atrocities experienced by the aboriginal peoples of his Australian homeland, complete with didgeridoo? Check.

There were some missteps Monday night. A blown mic … or three. Some faulty projection screens. Heartfelt but at times overly fawning tributes to Detroit (we ate it up … but at times it got a bit thick). A strangely sequenced second act that seemed to jettison the chronological overview of the first act for a random grab-bag of themes and ideas. I also admit that I wouldn’t have minded a bit more attention paid to his Tony-winning role in The Boy From Oz. The medley of Allen’s more obvious (for American ears) pop tunes was understandable as was the Rip Taylor-style vamping in the audience; yet, I longed for more of Peter Allen, the brilliant singer/songwriter and a bit less of the theme park character flash on display. That said, these are all minor quibbles in an otherwise extraordinary evening.

My hunch is that our singing, dancing, jazz-hand flinging former-“Wolverine” will be riding this arena-gig until the wheels fall off. The Hugh Jackman on display Monday night was simply too exquisitely blissed out not to, and, as a result, I’m sure he will be playing every arena, concert venue, and state fairgrounds into which he can get his twinkly visage booked. Given what I just experienced this afternoon watching Dark Phoenix, that’s one damn smart career move!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon 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.