“Most Friends Fade”: The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along

Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

Stephen Sondheim, genius as he may be, is saddled often (fairly or unfairly) with the critique of having a “second act problem.” His shows kick off with a high-concept bang but then devolve into misanthropic goo around the 10 o’clock hour. Modern revivals of most of the major works have found clever fixes for these issues, but one could argue Sondheim himself was trying to reverse his troubles with 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along.

The musical is based on the play by the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and works backward in roughly five year increments from the climactic and ugly dissolution of a trio’s longstanding friendship in 1976 to its very inception in 1957.

So, rather than a second act problem (the second act is actually quite impactful), Merrily We Roll Along has a “first scene” problem. Unfortunately, I’m not sure The Ringwald’s latest production, which is otherwise pretty damn fine, fixes it.

Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

Much like Company, which The Ringwald will be performing next and which is also a Sondheim collaboration with playwright George Furth, Merrily is a show about a man in midlife crisis free-fall, told through a series of episodes and punctuated by the kind of garish and venomous cocktail parties that only seem to exist on Broadway stages and in Bette Davis movies.

And, yes, there is a musical reprise alerting us we are moving from one moment to the next – no “Bobby, baby” this time, but plenty of repetitions of the title song (which you will have in your head for weeks).

The protagonist in question (and likely surrogate for Sondheim himself) is Franklin Shepard, a brilliant composer whose Faustian fixation on the material trappings of success (big house, bigger house, first wife, messy tabloid divorce, affair and subsequent second marriage to his leading lady, money, money, money … and cute plaid suits) takes him further and further away from the hardscrabble joys of his bohemian early days with fellow creative pals Charley Kringas, his lyricist, and Mary Flynn, their novelist buddy.

Schultz [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

As the three leads in Ringwald’s production, Kyle Johnson (Franklin), Ashlee Armstrong (Mary), and Kevin Kaminski (Charley) are transfixing, and the show rises and falls on their believable dynamic and the sparkle each bring to their respective roles. And that’s why that opening scene is so confounding. We meet this trio at the worst possible moment in their lives, in a shrill and clunky scene that fails to indicate the beautiful story which follows. I don’t fault Joe Bailey’s otherwise consistent and effective direction, nor the physical space (you go to The Ringwald for talent and heart, not production values), but I do cite the show’s gimmicky structure and, to a lesser degree, a fairly heavy-handed performance style in that opening scene that is blessedly absent elsewhere from this cast.

I only belabor this point for one reason – as an audience, don’t be discouraged by the opening, because otherwise this production is aces.

The vocal quality of the cast, performing a tricky yet melodic score, is exceptional, and music director CT Hollis is to be commended for bringing such vibrancy and color from the assembled voices. Kudos also to in-house accompanist Ben Villaluz for doing yeoman’s work in lieu of a full orchestra.

Johnson, Gagnon [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

The set design by Brian Kessler is minimal, almost to a fault, but there is clever use of small set pieces, décor, and furniture to differentiate locales. Dyan Bailey’s video projection is great fun and is aided and abetted by Brandy Joe Plambeck’s lighting/sound. (Brandy Joe also plays Frank’s sad sack manager Joe to great effect in the show.) Using archival footage, played in reverse, the video snippets, which run during the aforementioned “Merrily We Roll Along” reprises, add a nice visual distraction in the tight space, bring whimsy and poignancy, and offer helpful historical context.

The ensemble (Jerry Haines, Ashley M. Lyle, Anna Morreale, Nicole Pascaretta, Donny Ridel, and standout Matthew Wallace) act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action directly and playing an array of waiters, reporters, partygoers, etc. Notably, at one point, they are referred to in aggregate as “The Blob” – a collective of insipid, shallow socialite hangers-on whose sole purpose, with the help of pushy second wife Gussie (in a tricky but extremely effective love-to-hate performance from Liz Schultz), seems to be to drag Franklin further into mediocrity. The ensemble has a ball (some to the point of distraction, unfortunately) with this highly theatrical function. Think Bells Are Ringing’s “Drop That Name” as performed by the Kardashian family.

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Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

As for musical numbers, Kaminski’s rousing and acerbic ode to being the neglected friend – “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – is the moment where the production really zings to life, set into fizzy motion by Wallace’s eye-popping take on a vain talk show host interviewing Kaminski. “Old Friends” – performed by Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski – wherein the trio attempts to rekindle their affections through song is a delight, with some sweet nods by choreographer Molly Zaleski to Singin’ in the Rain’s iconic “Good Mornin’” number.  Jordan Gagnon has her strongest moments performing a haunting and heartbreaking “Not a Day Goes By” in the first act as Frank’s mistreated ex-wife Beth. And show closer “Our Time” with Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski is a lovely sweet-and-sour take on the limitless possibility of new friendship as seen through a sobering retrospective lens.

Over dinner before the show, my friend Lauren and I were discussing the high wire act of balancing one’s creative spark within the daunting machinery of commerce. Merrily is very much Sondheim’s meditation on that concept, written at a point when he had achieved great success and was likely gobsmacked by the pressures such “golden handcuffs” inflict. He would later write more accessibly about the issue in Sunday in the Park with George,After all without some recognition, no one’s going to give you a commission.” Kyle Johnson as Franklin does a remarkable job channeling this tension, offering us a central tragic figure who is as relatable as he is maddening. Johnson smartly resists the people-pleasing trap of making Franklin “likable,” with a feral and sweaty inner life that leaps from the stage. Comparably, Armstrong gives us a Mary who is loyal and true, witty and warm and utterly alone. The juxtaposition of the two figures with Kaminski’s twitchy, lovable, exasperating Charley makes for great theatre.

Merrily We Roll Along has an almost cult-like following, and I can see why. The score is magical, the structure a problematic puzzle, and the three leading characters (particularly as portrayed here) sublime. Don’t miss a rare opportunity to see this unusual show live with such a talented and winsome cast.

Roy and Lauren Crocker at The Ringwald

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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.

“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” Marvel’s Black Panther

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Wow. I think we are truly in a Golden Age of superhero cinema, wherein technology and talent and investment have converged to create engaging spectacles that not only sell a sh*t-ton of action figures but, y’know, have something to say.

Wonder Woman. Logan. Captain America: Winter Soldier. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thor: Ragnarok. Deadpool.

And, now, arguably the best of them all: Marvel’s/Disney’s Black Panther.

Classic comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore long ago tapped into the allegorical power of superheroes as a lens to assess our present reality and to give us hope … or a dose of hard medicine.

It took Tinseltown decades – with a number of promising starts and soul-crushing stops – to wake up to the fact that, while, yes, these movies cost a lot of money, they will make a lot more if they aren’t dumbed down and focus-grouped past all recognition. Give us relatable figures in a heightened environment, thereby offering commentary and guidance on surviving this tumultuous human condition.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Think Shakespeare … with capes … and slightly easier to follow. Or Aesop’s Fables … in Spandex. The messages in these films are essential and timely and healing, but, even more importantly (and perhaps sadly so), these messages are making money, which is, alas, the only language that sometimes brings actual change in this country. Nonetheless, I’ll take it.

Black Panther is a superhero fable our stormy times need. If Wonder Woman helped soothe hearts broken over Hillary Clinton’s defeat – anticipating the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement – in an escapist adventure celebrating the strength and power of women, Black Panther offers a fist-raising rallying cry for those in pain over the institutional racism and politicized xenophobia which always existed but has come roaring to the fore since November 2016.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Imagine an African nation, with limitless natural resources, that developed, unmolested by Western colonization, to its truest societal, cultural, intellectual, industrial, and technological potential. This is Wakanda, the fictional setting of the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Directed with verve and sensitivity by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) from his own screenplay, Black Panther takes a smidge of Hamlet, a bit of Richard III, maybe some Henry IV, a lot of Alex Haley, some Suzan-Lori Parks and James Baldwin, with a sprinkling of Disney’s own The Lion King and throws it all in a blender, yielding magic.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Prince T’Challa (a haunted and haunting Chadwick Boseman with enough leonine presence to command the screen and enough emotional uncertainty to allow us all to project our own anxieties and dreams onto him) returns to a kingdom in turmoil after the assassination of his father.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

His mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett who really just has to be Angela Bassett here … her and her cheekbones … and that’s just fine) is preparing for her son’s coronation. T’Challa’s sister and Wakanda’s tech wizard Shuri (a gleefully scene-stealing Letitia Wright) impishly ensures her brother’s swaggering male ego doesn’t run off the rails. T’Challa is challenged for the throne, first by competing tribal leader M’Baku (an imposing yet delightfully comic turn by Winston Duke) and later by interloping American Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (a beautifully nuanced Michael B. Jordan).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I won’t spoil some fairly significant “palace intrigue” twists, but suffice it say Jordan delivers one of Marvel’s strongest villains to date (watch out Cate Blanchett’s “Hela” and Ian McKellen’s/Michael Fassbender’s “Magneto“). This isn’t your standard-issue “I’m going to take over the WORLD” baddie.

Nope, Killmonger is a disruptive demogogue whose power-to-the-people shtick is motivated by anger and frustration that Wakandan isolationism has deprived generations of displaced African descendants the resources and aid that would have transformed their lives and leveled the playing field. Who’s the villain, and who’s the hero here? Pretty heady stuff for a superhero fantasy, and  Jordan doesn’t miss a beat.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Coogler wisely frames the film with sequences set in Oakland, California, depicting the hardscrabble conditions facing too many African-Americans today.  (People vs. OJ Simpson’s Sterling K. Brown puts in a brief but effective, narratively significant appearance here.) The juxtaposition of our reality with the “Emerald City”-escapist beauty of Wakanda is sobering and revelatory.

Reflecting on a hard lesson learned through soul-crushing circumstances, Boseman’s T’Challa observes in the film’s final scene (before the United Nations, no less): “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” (Yeah, tell me that isn’t some overt shade-throwing to our present administration. Swoon!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We also have damn fine character turns by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the chrome-domed head of Wakanda’s all-female army Dora Milaje, and by Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, first and foremost Wakanda’s chief foreign intelligence agent and only secondarily T’Challa’s on-again-off-again love interest. The women are anything but damsels-in-distress in this flick; they are a**-kicking-take-names-later warriors who more than hold their own onscreen with our titular hero.

Martin Freeman is a twitchy, breezy delight as government handler Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is great, scenery-chewing fun as sonically-super-powered smuggler Ulysses Klaue. Even Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder Zuri with the same old tired, hammy, pontificating performance which he always delivers can’t bring this intoxicating wild ride to a screeching halt.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s a Marvel movie, so, yes, there are spaceships and car chases and explosions aplenty, nail-biting races-against-the-clock, and more references to fictitious ore “Vibranium” than you could shake a graphic novel at. The design-work in this film is beyond extraordinary, importing Jack Kirby’s original comic book concepts but infusing them with an African authenticity and a breath-taking, jewel-toned aesthetic. But Coogler knows that none of that matters a damn if we aren’t invested in character, plot, and message. This is a remarkable film.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s time for change. For women. For people of color. For the LGBTQ community. For those of us growing older. For the differently-abled. For humanity. Between seeing this film this weekend, and watching those beautiful and brave teenagers from Parkland, Florida, publicly calling out the complacency, corruption, and culpability in our national leaders, I – for the first time in a while – have (a glimmer of) hope.

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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.

Thank you to sweet friend Victoria Nampiima, an upcoming Ugandan fashion designer, for sending these beautiful threads this week!

A room of her own (#OscarsSoRight?): The Post; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; The Darkest Hour

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m finally catching up with all of the Oscar-nominated films from year-end 2017. There are many culprits for this delay, chiefly among them the fact that, for some reason, many of these flicks don’t make it to the hinterlands of the Midwest until weeks after their initial release dates. My tendency toward over-commitment in daily life may also be to blame. C’est la vie. I’ve finally viewed The PostThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Bird; The Shape of Water; and The Darkest Hour.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I can safely say the Academy got so much so right this year. (I’m sure they were nervously awaiting my seal of approval. Not.)

Much (digital) ink has already been spilled on these movies, and I’m feeling a touch lazy so I won’t go into great detail about any of them. I will admit that personally only The Post and The Darkest Hour truly spoke to me, but I found all five to be thoughtfully composed with unique and arguably essential points-of-view and with timely themes, no doubt provoking many minds and healing many hearts in this rather contentious era.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, what resonated with me most about all five films was the strength and agency of their leading female characters. Rarely have we seen a class of Oscar-nominated films (I, Tonya included) where the bravery, wit, wisdom, and tenacity of women are so consistently celebrated and intelligently explored. Perhaps it’s the Trump effect, a cultural reclamation on behalf of Hillary, an anticipation of #MeToo and #TimesUp, or just a much-needed evolution (and growing up) in Hollywood. Who knows?

“Keep your finger out of my eye.” Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee to Meryl Streep’s Katherine Graham in The Post

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In The Post, Meryl Streep gives one of her most nuanced portrayals in an already incredible catalogue of film work. Her Katherine Graham is faced with an unwinnable, dare I say, Sophie’s Choice: save her family’s paper The Washington Post from financial ruin through a tricky public offering or take on the President of the United States and risk imprisonment to honor the paper’s history of journalistic integrity by publishing the Pentagon Papers. Graham is “mansplained” up one side and down the other throughout the film. Streep’s portrayal is sensitive to the social and historical context that women were acculturated to lean on men and seek their counsel if and when they were “permitted” any decision-making authority at all. Ostensibly, Spielberg’s beautifully paced and utterly compelling movie is an allegory for our present times when we have a president who sees the Bill of Rights as less inalienable and more ignorable. However, I saw the film primarily as a powerful and subtle depiction of a woman (Graham) reclaiming her authority and driving our nation towards inexorable truth. It’s a performance for the ages, IMHO.

“You’re culpable because you joined the gang.” – Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes to her town minister in Three Billboards

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of performances for the ages, we then have Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand is possibly the most cathartic and relatable actor of her generation, capable of channeling the inherent tension and internal conflict of id, ego, and superego unlike any other. Mildred may be her finest acting work, alas in a film that doesn’t quite rise to her admittedly stratospheric level. Mildred’s daughter was raped and then immolated, and, in Mildred’s frustration that the local police have been incapable of solving the horrific crime, she finds the bluntest instrument at her disposal (the titular “three billboards”) to send a crystal clear message that wouldn’t be out of place on an N.W.A. record. McDormand is haunting and funny, heartbreaking and infuriating as a woman whose voice just can’t be stifled by her small-minded small-town. I think I would have enjoyed the piece better as a one-woman show as most of the supporting cast offer more superficial readings of their respective characters. Further, a mid-film narrative twist nearly co-opts the whole enterprise in favor of Woody Harrelson’s far-less-interesting Sheriff Willoughby. Sam Rockwell (Deputy Dixon) is both hammy and poignant as a foil for and target of McDormand’s rage, and, by the time the film runs its course, the idea of a Thelma and Louise-style “road picture” with the two actors isn’t without its potential charms.

“Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” – Lois Smith’s Sister Sarah Joan to Soairse Ronan’s Lady Bird in Lady Bird

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig, is a loving and scruffy slice-of-life with luminous Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a thoughtful and maddening and deep-feeling teen whose conscious rejection of organized religion and of conventional thinking runs afoul of her own desires to be liked and accepted and to “fit in” with her Catholic school’s “popular kid” crowd. Any human who has ever wanted to be their authentic (weird) selves but ALSO get to sit at the best lunch table in school can totally relate (which means all of us). Ronan is brilliant in the role, as is Laurie Metcalf as her worried, worrying, worrisome mother Marion whose noble wishes to protect and to provide are as alienating as they are well-intentioned. The film is a delight, but gets bogged down mid-way with a conventional (if not completely appropriate) Mean Girls-esque subplot of Lady Bird rejecting her theatre nerd friends for the loose collection of pot-smoking athletes and gum-snapping rich kids who rule the school. The film is so interesting and so believable to that point that I found the predictability of that coming-of-age narrative a bit disappointing. Nonetheless, Ronan, Metcalf, and Gerwig give eloquent voices to the frustrations and fears of women navigating a rigged system where their respective needs and desires are often pitted in opposition to one another.

“Life is but the shipwreck of our plans.” – wall calendar in The Shape of Water

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Shape of Water, directed with fairy tale elan by Guillermo del Toro, is like a soft core E.T.-meets-The Red Shoe Diaries. A co-worker of mine said it was more like a naughty Edward Scissorhands. I will accept that friendly amendment to my cinematic comparison. Shape of Water had my favorite cast of any of these films. Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, and Richard Jenkins are all exceptional in their own rights, let alone collected in one place, in service to a visionary fable of tolerance, compassion, and love. Yet, the film overall left me cold. Perhaps, I’m a prude, but the random bits of “sexy time” between Hawkins’ Eliza and Jones’ otherworldly “Amphibian Man” were disruptive to the gentle narrative at play. I also could have done without said Amphibian Man biting the head off one of Jenkins’ beloved cats, even if the moment is offered as an example of predatory innocence. Yuck. Regardless, Hawkins offers a brilliant and heartrending portrayal of a mute woman whose expressiveness far exceeds vocalization, and Shannon nearly steals the picture as a government official whose myopic masculinity and arrested development result in nothing but ugliness, violence, and missed opportunity.

“You are strong because you are imperfect.” – Kristin Scott Thomas’ Clementine Churchill to Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As for Joe Wright’s The Darkest Hour, yes, it is a movie which features a gobsmacking transformation of Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill. And, yes, Oldman is altogether breathtaking in his depiction of Churchill’s genius eccentricity, shocking isolation, and dogged determination. However, the excellence of his work and of the film itself is greatly aided and abetted by the work of cast-mates Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s witty, wise, and anything-but-long-suffering wife Clementine and Lily James as Churchill’s witty, wise, and anything-but-wide-eyed assistant Elizabeth Layton. The three actors bring sparkling life to Theory of Everything screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s chatty script, and, while Churchill was clearly the odd-man-out where British politicos were concerned, his ultimate success could be attributed as much to the women in his life as to his own fiercely independent spirit. These are exceptional performances in a pretty good film.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In The Post, Streep’s Graham quotes English essayist Samuel Johnson: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, and you are surprised to find it done at all.” Her point, in the context of the film, is that society has not encouraged women to speak their truths, so the act of doing so, while arguably initially inelegant, is as shocking as it is necessary. In the case of these five films, truth is delivered elegantly and compellingly, and the class of Oscar nominees this year goes a long way toward giving women, as Virginia  Woolf once implored, a “room of their own.”

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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.

In Whitley County covers BroadwayWorld recognition – PLUS, video of numbers from “Life is a Cabaret” #cabaret4relay

Thank you, Bridgett Hernandez and In Whitley County, for this lovely coverage of my recent BroadwayWorld Detroit / BroadwayWorld / Cennarium Award for Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Mystery of Edwin Drood. And for the connections you make between play and work and how important it is to have both.

Plus, enjoy these videos of numbers from the final dress rehearsal of “Life is a Cabaret” – click to view. Thanks, Lia, for capturing! You can also view as a continuous playlist here – more videos will be added as available.

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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.

Thank you for the music. Life is a Cabaret an unqualified hit! #cabaret4relay

I am overwhelmed. In the best way possible. Bunch of theater nerds got together under the expert leadership of Denise Isenberg Staffeld and Kevin Robert Ryan with Lia De Biasi and Shirley Addison Auty and sang a bunch of beloved old tired show tunes, raising over $14,000 (!!!) in one evening for Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth, MI. We had a sold out crowd of 400 people who seemed to enjoy whatever the hell we were doing on stage. Let that sink in. 400 people. $14,000. ONE (Wednesday!) night.

And we had a heckuva time doing it.

Personally, I had nearly half of my law firm Kerr Russell show up to support me – they filled the back three rows. I still have goosebumps over that. And I had a number of other wonderful friends – old and new – there to support our efforts. This is truly a remarkable experience, and I will be forever grateful. I shall sleep well tonight.

Hometownlife Coverage here.

Thank you, all:

John Mola, Christopher Tremblay, Cathy Skutch McDonald, Jim Paglino, Ben Two-Ships, Bethany Jean, AJ Kosmalski, Aimee Kat, Michelle Burtley, Jeff Steinhauer, Tim Chanko, Tracy Neil, Kelvin Elvidge, Nikki Bagdady Horn, Jenn Kennedy, Melissa Francis, Bruce Sheri Hardcastle, Cynthia Villeneuve, Gail Showler, Katie Westfall, Jeffrey May, Brandy Swykert Mathie, Ashley Racette, Yvette Kotlarczyk, Sue Smith, Candice Hadley, Rebecca Winder, Leo Babcock, Jackie Jenkins, Michelle MacDonald McAllister, Pat Williams, Michele Danic, Sue Fater Willis, Jan Sekedat Caurdy, Laura Evans Jones, Kristina Kalfayan, Heather Kalfayan, Shana Orgeck, Karen Schumer, Debra Behrmann, Gary Longwell, Joanie Davidson Forfinski, Cara Forfinski, Cole Forfinski, Jamie Gazella Coker, Kelly Hinojosa, Megan Schaper, Liz Johnson, Kim Strube Scartelli, Diane Pessefall DiMauro, Liz Johnson, Kim Strube Scartelli, Marion Zidzik Rozum, Tammy Schenck Brown, Debby Ash, Wendy Sielaff and lord knows who all I’m missing. Grateful for you all ❤

#cabaret4relay

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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.

Manic fun under the orange roof. The Dio’s Murder at the Howard Johnson’s

Joshua Brown, Dale Dobson [Photo courtesy The Dio, Michele Anliker Photography]

Originally published at www.encoremichigan.com

If Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite  had been written by Mel Brooks and staged as a very special episode of The Carol Burnett Show, you would have The Dio’s latest Murder at the Howard Johnson’s. And if you are a child of the 70s, as I am, that is pretty high praise. The Dio, as always, has put on an extremely capable and professional production. What they do so well is provide crowd-pleasing entertainment, exceptionally produced and beautifully performed.

The piece is, as the title suggests, a series of vignettes around a possible murder (or murders) at a Howard Johnson’s Hotel. From Wikipedia: “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s is a 1979 play in two acts by American playwrights Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick. The production officially opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre after 10 preview performances on May 17, 1979; closing just three days later after only four more performances.” Surprisingly – and this could be why the play closed so quickly in its original incarnation – it is more prescient and self-aware than most similar farces of its era of the 70s’ overall garishness and often-absurd attitudes toward gender and sexuality.

It helps in great part that The Dio’s crackerjack production team – director Steve DeBruyne, assistant director Carrie Sayer, set/lighting/sound designer Matt Tomich, costume designer Norma Polk, and props master Eileen Obradovich – understand to an almost superhuman level the high wire act of balancing arch comedy and full-on camp without devolving into a soapy, self-indulgent mess. They really spin magic out of smartly utilized resources and raw talent at The Dio – that is what theatre is all about.

The production is an affectionate love letter to a blessedly bygone era. The color scheme is that of the classic hotel, and the dinner theatre food offerings before hand even more so. Why-oh-why American decor abandoned that lovely, preternatural turquoise and orange hue combo I’ll never know.

Molly Cunningham, Joshua Brown [Photo courtesy The Dio, Michele Anliker Photography]

For those unaware, The Dio always offers an immersive evening of entertainment, beginning with dinner and dessert before the performances. If you have a Midwestern palate like mine, and your idea of haute cuisine was shaped table-side at restaurants like Ho-Jo’s with a soundtrack of Hall and Oates and Air Supply in the background, the buffet of vintage delights will leave you chuckling and satisfied by its array of guilty pleasures. I’m vegetarian, and The Dio is always great about accommodating dietary needs, but even I was charmed by the clam strips on the menu. I remember thinking as a child that clam strips were the most exotic items I could order in any restaurant. The Dio has even replicated the vintage style of a Howard Johnson’s menu in the show’s program. No detail is left unturned.

The show is a hoot from start to finish, and, as the run progresses, the tight three-person ensemble will likely get looser and funnier, knowing when and where to milk the audience’s shock-and-awe over the spiraling shenanigans. Those audience reactions will be a key component to the success of this production. Not unlike Harvey Korman and Tim Conway legendarily “breaking” in the middle of a sketch because they had so surprised one another with a comic bit, Murder at the Howard Johnson’s will rise and fall by the affection the performers have for each other’s work. The audience on Saturday night was vocal and enthused, and the cast responded accordingly. The production finds an easy 70s groove with solid pacing, clever musical cues, and the aforementioned pitch perfect set and costume design. I had my covetous eye on one plaid jacket in particular.

Dale Dobson, as cuckolded used car salesman Paul Miller, nearly runs away with the show. Imagine if Gene Wilder and Charles Nelson Reilly had had a baby. No really. Imagine it. There is no place that brave Dobson won’t go – physically and emotionally – and his performance is a manic and escalating tour-de-force. Dobson’s character development pulls just to the right side of becoming an unhinged cartoon, the actor weaving in authentic notes of heartbreak and confusion over the realization that his beloved wife (“I bought her FIVE watches!”) has taken up with a hunky bald dentist who has an affinity for, yes, plaid jackets.

Molly Cunningham Joshua Brown, Dale Dobson [Photo courtesy The Dio, Michele Anliker Photography]

Joshua Brown as dandy dentist Mitchell Lovell is nicely understated (somebody has to be amidst the day-glo chaos), nailing the oddball swaggering machismo of the era, wherein sexual infidelities were seen as heroic accomplishments and men who had been weaned on too many cowboy movies thought a highly compensated career in, say, dentistry made them a modern day Wyatt Earp. The “Me Decade” had no idea #metoo was on its way. Brown has a gift for scoring laughs in the quiet moments, a glowering sidelong glance here, a well-placed sigh there. He is the Lyle Waggoner of this enterprise.

Molly Cunningham knocks it out of the park as Arlene Miller whose indiscretions and flights of murderous fancy launch the narrative into action. She has a knack for the throwaway line, scoring as many laughs with a tossed off zinger as she does the screwball physical comedy demanded by the production. Cunningham also does yeoman’s work keeping the slower moments moving along, setting up the piece’s increasingly hyperbolic tomfoolery.

The show is broken into three scenes (there is no intermission) placed across three holidays (Christmas, Independence Day, and New Year’s), all set in a Howard Johnson’s hotel room, as the trio plots and fails miserably to kill one of their own – a different victim each holiday – triggered by the passions Arlene sparks in the knuckle-headed men in her life. The play’s structure is a tad clunky, forcing the audience to become precoccupied with the passage of time – both in terms of the narrative’s chronology and the play’s length. Interestingly, this is the only element of the piece that reads as dated. However, the Dio’s production makes it all work so well that this becomes a minor criticism.

Murder at the Howard Johnson’s is great fun. Ibsen, it ain’t. Gloriously goofy, it is. Grab a bottle of wine; enjoy the buffet of carbs; and sit back for a night of relentlessly hysterical comedy. Under the orange roof, you won’t be disappointed.

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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.

“You just need two arms and an attitude … and everybody sing with me.” Morris Day and The Time at Motor City Casino’s Sound Board

Prince pretty much generated his own cottage industry of Minnesota-bred funk acts. New artists and groups spun from his orbit on what seemed like a daily basis (at the Purple One’s peak): Sheila E., Vanity 6, Apollonia, Wendy & Lisa, The Revolution, The NPG, Tevin Campbell, Ingrid Chavez, Andre Cymone, Carmen Electra, Candy Dulfer, Rosie Gaines, on and on. Arguably, one of the most legendary names is Morris Day and The Time – in great part to having launched the producing careers of band members Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (the master architects of Janet Jackson’s sound, among others).

In fact, Prince assembled The Time out of thin air, deciding in his whimsy (and expert marketing) that a “rival band” would make for a good narrative. (Think World Wrestling Federation, Jem & The Holograms vs. The Misfits, or any one-off episode of The Monkees.) Lead singer Morris Day was a real-life childhood friend of Prince’s so he was “cast” as Prince’s musical nemesis on the charts and, then quite literally, in the film Purple Rain. Prince was nothing if not clever at creating a deafening buzz, one that sometimes overshadowed his musical gifts.

Day always played his role to the hilt – a vain and petulant Cab Calloway to Prince’s relatively serene Duke Ellington – and The Time’s naughty novelty hits reflected that character: “The Bird,” “Jungle Love,” “Jerk Out,” “Cool,” “Ice Cream Castles,” “Chocolate.”

I always got a kick out of the dynamic, so I was excited that a partially reunited Time (at least Day and drummer Jellybean Johnson) would be performing at Detroit’s Motor City Casino Sound Board venue.

Well, as Thomas Wolfe observed, “You can’t go home again.”

The show was entertaining but on the balance disappointing. Day seemed to be going through the motions, with a new “Jerome” following him around with mirror and trench coat and Day looking pretty bored with it all. (One of Day’s trademark “bits” has been to have a footman – “Jerome” – follow him around holding a mirror up whenever Day wanted to gaze lovingly at his own face or to help Day change in and out of any number of day-glo zoot suits and swing coats.)

Day still has his ear-splitting squawk, and the band he has assembled can replicate the Prince-ified magic of yesteryear, but the whole enterprise now comes off like an oldies band performing at a state fair. The energy was down; the sound mix was muddy; and most of the time (no pun intended) I had a hard time discerning one song from the next.

There also was an unfortunate sequence during “Ice Cream Castles” wherein Day invited a number of female audience members on stage so that he could ogle and comment on their physical appearances. That’s never ok, but now in this historical moment it was particularly nauseating.

All of that said, Day is still a showman and even a worn out carnival barker has his moments. The 90 minute show zipped by, and the audience of 40-plus somethings helped him maintain a party atmosphere, reliving the bygone days of dancing in their parents’ rec rooms, basements, and garages to The Time’s loopy grooves. It’s just a shame Day has found himself locked in amber.

One of his more interesting asides during the concert was when Day posited that Grammy-winner Bruno Mars owed his flamboyant style, cheekiness, and success to the path carved first by Day. It was a telling moment, devoid of irony – a kind of Sunset Boulevard “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small” bit of snark – that revealed Day’s bitter humanity in a way none of his onstage preening ever could. And, it is true that Mars has made a pretty damn fine career mining and reinventing the best of his R&B forebears’ work, but the key difference between Mars and Day is Bruno’s heart and whimsy and  light touch. Something Day never really had. Enough with the ginned up rivalries, Mr. Day. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Roy and Nikki

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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.

Less than one week until Life Is A Cabaret! February 7 … benefiting American Cancer Society Relay for Life #Cabaret4Relay

 

Life is A Cabaret: A Musical Fundraiser featuring Broadway Tunes! This event is a collaboration with Chicks for Charity and The American Cancer Society. Proceeds will benefit the Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth, MI. Tickets are $22 and are available at the box office, by phone or online at https://goo.gl/qRq7b3! The event is 7 pm at Canton’s Village of Cherry Hill Theatre. Doors open at 6 pm.

“You Will Be Found” in rehearsal (from Dear Evan Hansen) – Featured vocalists: AJ Kosmalski as “Evan” with Aimee Chapman – #cabaret4relay

 

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.

Could-have-been, should-have-been, might-have-been moments in time: Constellations at Theatre Nova

Originally contributed to encoremichigan.com

[Images from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page]

Big ideas in little moments. That seems to be Theatre Nova’s stock-in-trade, making effective use of its unconventional venue to feature new works (Clutter, The Revolutionists) that explore existential philosophy as expressed in the comic, poignant, tragic spaces between the rain drops of daily living. It’s a smart and essential artistic niche the organization has carved for itself.

Theatre Nova’s latest offering – Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations – is in brilliant keeping with this artistic through-line, a breezy and compelling two-hander that runs a brisk intermission-less 70 minutes.

Directed with the surety of an actor’s eye by Theatre Nova founder Carla Milarch, the play depicts in non-linear fashion the ever-was and never-was moments in the romance, dissolution, reconnection, and tragic end of a young mumblecore couple in contemporary England. Marianne (a wide-eyed, sparkling Meghan VanArsdalen) is a Cambridge academic specializing in quantum mechanics and astrophysics whose disarming lack-of-filter is as charming as it is blunt. Roland (a shaggy, inviting Forrest Hejkal) is a beekeeper whose awkwardness in life and love yields to a compelling and heartbreaking loyalty as the piece progresses.

I dare not spoil any of the play’s twists and turns – and there are a few – but suffice it to say that Constellations applies string theory, multiversal philosophy, and the random/structured elegance of bouncing atomic particles to the seeming mundanity of daily living. If you’ve ever wondered how crossing the street five minutes later or using a harsher tone of voice in one conversation might impact the trajectory of your fate, this is the play for you. Similar territory has certainly been covered in any number of comic books, Twilight Zone episodes, and fantasy films (Sliding Doors, The Butterfly Effect, etc.) but never, that I can recall, in the guise of a two-person play.

Structurally, the piece repeats short scenic episodes, with a minor tweak each time – a shift in dialogue, a change in tone, a switch in timing – to reveal how different eventualities may work out for the couple. The production helps mark the break between each episode with a quick flash of light and sometimes a shift in hue. (I’m color blind, so I might have missed any more subtle lighting indicators.) There are interstitial, nebulous, ominous spoken-word exchanges between the two characters as well (think Greek chorus by way Stephen Hawking … for lack of a better description) that hint at an inevitable dark turn in their lives.

The respective occupations of each character underpin the play’s philosophy and help explain what might otherwise be confusing to the casual viewer. Marianne offers a giddy take on the exciting prospect of living in a “multiverse” where each decision we make creates another “branched world,” parallel versions of ourselves living out vastly different lives just because we chose one breakfast cereal over another. Roland’s beekeeping becomes a conflicting yet complementary metaphor for the finite nature of life, the ordered but surreal nature of community, and how our impending mortality sweetens/sours our daily acts. There is a particularly riotous sequence, beautifully played by the two leads, wherein Roland uses some fairly grotesque imagery from the mating habits of bees to offer Meghan a cumbersome but altogether winning marriage proposal.

The production is aided and abetted by economical set, sound, and lighting design (by Hejkal, Diane Hill, and Daniel C. Walker respectively) that evokes a dreamlike inner/outer life through bioluminous hues and a repetition of hexagons that evoke bee hives, human DNA, covalent structures, and outer space itself.

Any quibbles with the production are quite minor and will likely resolve after the jitters of opening night. A few sound and music cues were a bit too hushed; some Midwestern cadences (rarely) slipped into the very British dialogue; and the two leads, dripping in chemistry, had an initial physical stiffness that could be chalked up to the awkwardness of their characters’ burgeoning romance but read on opening night as being a bit uncertain how to fill the performance space.

I will also note that I had the joy of sitting with a group of students who were quite taken with the performance and with the play itself. I’m sure some fuddy duddies nearby were lightly annoyed at the unrestrained vocal responses given by these young people as the story revealed itself. I, for one, was delighted. It is a rare treat to watch a new audience discover its love of theatre and to have honest, visceral reactions to what they are observing. That is what theatre has always been about … and always should be about.

Constellations is a rare treat, well-timed with Valentine’s Day just peeking around the corner – a thinking person’s romantic comedy about reality and consequence. The direction by Milarch is pitch perfect, capturing the nuances of multiple variations on a theme and making easy-to-follow and deeply affecting what, in less capable hands, could have been a muddled mess. Yet, it is the stars of Constellations (pun intended) who make this must-see entertainment. Van Arsdalen and Hejkal give as good as they get, presenting beautifully flawed, profoundly moving characterizations through a swirl of could-have-been, should-have-been, and might-have-been moments in time. Together they are a revelation.

Constellations runs from January 26 through February 18 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor, MI 48103. Tickets: www.theatrenova.org or 734-635-8450.

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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.

“If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.” Paddington 2

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Paddington 2 rather famously this week became the best reviewed film of all time (at least according to film analysis aggregator Rotten Tomatoes). Let that sink in for a minute.

Paddington 2 is the BEST. REVIEWED. FILM. OF. ALL. TIME.

And it deserves it.

Not because it is revelatory or experimentally artistic or makes a bold statement about the human condition … no, Paddington 2 deserves all the accolades it can get because it is finely crafted, beautifully acted, utterly charming, zippily entertaining with an emotional center so firmly grounded in acceptance and kindness, wit and love that for one brief moment the moviegoer forgets the combative, mean-spirited, divisive state of the world today. Roll your eyes if you want, but that little CGI bear with the quizzical expression, worried eyes, playful demeanor, earnest ineptitude, and soft-spoken ways (Ben Whishaw’s voiceover work deserves an Oscar) offers the audience hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Paddington repeats a mantra taught to him by his beloved Aunt Lucy in times of both great duress and great joy: “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.” Amen. The wee ursine is nothing but good humor and bonhomie in a duffle coat and cloche hat.

The film is about as political as an episode of Mr. Rogers. Although, in this day and age, the hypocritically devout have somehow turned the words “love thy neighbor” into a declaration of war. No, the most subversive concepts in the film are that difference brings strength, hard work will always be rewarded, and everyone deserves a chance to love and be loved in return. Yet, in 2018, that philosophy almost sounds revolutionary.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The central cast returns for this second outing, directed with storybook charm by series helmer Paul King. Luminous, crackerjack Sally Hawkins is the perfect Mrs. Brown, her steely fragility and nervous authority a perfect foil for a little bear who doles out hugs and marmalade sandwiches in equal measure. Hugh Bonneville offers a loving and postmodern portrait of the exasperated sitcom dad in Mr. Brown. Julie Walters is an irascible, mischievous delight as Mrs. Bird, the Browns’ housekeeper and Mrs. Brown’s mother.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Newcomers include Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles McGinty, a cuddly felon whose bark far exceeds his bite and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, a charming narcissist whose failed acting career and total lack of a moral compass lead him to a life of crime (at Paddington’s expense).

I have to say that I love Grant’s second life as a wackadoodle character actor. It suits him far better than his floppy-haired wannabe heartthrob days ever did.

The episodic plot is part caper, part allegory as Paddington – in hopes of acquiring the perfect birthday present to send back home to Aunt Lucy in deepest, darkest Peru – sets off to earn money through a series of odd jobs, poorly but comically executed. In the process, he finds himself at cross-purposes with Grant’s Phoenix who sets Paddington up as a “fall bear” for the lapsed thespian’s life of larceny. The Browns do everything they can to free Paddington from the pokey; Paddington ends up teaching his fellow inmates the joys of baking and gardening and fine linens; and, after a hair-raising chase aboard two trains racing down parallel tracks, Phoenix gets his comeuppance and all is right (for the moment) in Paddington’s picaresque/picturesque world.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Trust me, it’s not the plot that sells this picture. Rather, the character details and the environments – which are so beautifully drawn, so detailed, and so vivid – offer a spot-on cinematic realization of author Michael Bond’s original book series. Every shot is carefully, thoughtfully composed to evoke the whimsy of pen-and-ink illustration. In one transfixing sequence Paddington, in fact, does traverse through London as depicted in the water color pages of an antique pop-up book.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

(I do wonder that, if we all read the same books as children, how some of us ended up so callous and cruel, indifferent to the needs and challenges of others. I’ll never understand that. Not ever.)

There are very few films that are an honest-to-goodness love letter to childhood and to childlike innocence. Paddington 2 is one of them. Don’t miss it. We all need a bit more joy in our lives these days.

Please look after this bear, indeed … or maybe it is he who is looking after us.

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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.