“We are all sacred and we all belong, so let’s just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked!” – Andrew Garfield in his acceptance speech after winning 2018’s Best Actor in a Play for his performance as Prior Walter in Angels in America’s Tony-winning revival
There is little question we live an ugly era, fraught with divisiveness, judgment, cruelty, intolerance, bullying, and hate. I can’t recall a time in my life when leaders behaved in such childlike fashion nor neighbors invoked so openly the weapons of economic disparity and hypocritical piety. It makes me want to cry.
Yet, there is always the theatre – historically, a welcome haven from injustice and an incubator of progressive thought to counteract all the bully pulpits corroding and calcifying ‘Merica’s heart.
This weekend, I found solace in the unlikeliest places: Oz, a 1980s Ohio high school, and CBS.
Someone in my house loves the Stephen Schwartz musical Wicked – based on (IMHO) the superior novel by Gregory Maguire – so much so that we’ve seen it three (?) times now. So, as a belated birthday present for John, we trekked down to Toledo’s Stranahan Theatre (kind of a high school auditorium in the middle of a cornfield) to catch the latest national touring cast.
I will always contend that playwright Winnie Holzman did yeoman’s work translating Maguire’s Byzantine text into a sleek, commercial, nearly theme park-ish machine, nailing at the highest concept all the narrative beats while jettisoning the sticky, problematic militant animal rights and fiery socialist critique woven throughout the original book. Problem is … I just happen to really like that critique.
I don’t envy actors taking on these roles which were set in stone aesthetically well before even Idina and Kristin got their over-singing mitts on them. Wicked‘s costuming intentionally evokes our communal love for the 1939 MGM film, and Menzel and Chenoweth were themselves just jazzing a postmodern remix on Margaret Hamilton’s and Billie Burke’s portrayals. As a touring actor, when your particular Elphaba or Galinda (the “gah” is silent) then numbers 837 or so off the line, what hope do you have to break out? In a cornfield in Toledo?
Well, I’m happy to report that this particular cast does as best as any at making the roles their own. Perhaps it is because this is likely the first generation of performers who grew up with the 15-year-old (!) show as more of an institution and less of a novelty. Consequently, they have a bit of comfort and moxie to tweak the edges.
Ginna Claire Mason, particularly, as Glinda gives us a different take – less Texas pep-squad Pepto Bismol pink cheerleader, more madcap Judy Holliday/Madeleine Kahn physical comedienne. It works well.
Mary Kate Morrissey has the tougher road, trying to make emerald green, holier-than-thou Elphaba distinctive, and she more or less succeeds, particularly after the always epic, always heart-melting “Defying Gravity” act one finale. The second act of Wicked is like a snowball down a mountain, cramming a whole LOT of plot development into 45 minutes (after a 90 minute first act that stretches the Hogwarts-ish high school plot points well beyond audience interest). Elphaba jets about a ton in that second act and can become the queen of exposition in less capable hands. Morrissey does a fine job bringing fire and grit as Elphaba comes to realize the chicanery of a Wizard who uses falsehoods, deception, and (literal) scapegoating to consolidate power and sow discord. (Sound familiar?)
Other standouts in the cast are Jody Gelb as a self-assured, utterly Machiavellian Madame Morrible; Mili Diaz as a Nessarose (Elphaba’s sister) for the ages whose heartache and heartbreak toxify in the most haunting sibling rivalry I’ve seen in any given production of this show; and Jon Robert Hall as a Fiyero whose glib Prince Charming gestures belie a conflicted heart of gold.
What struck me most watching this show again was how subversive it actually is (particularly marketed as it is as a “family night at the theatre”). Perhaps, I’ve gained enough distance on the source material or perhaps the actors amped up the political commentary in subtle ways, but, as an allegory of the shallow evil shallow men enact upon their fellow humans (and animals) in pursuit of ephemeral power and of the divisive and destructive impact such “leadership” has on our daily interactions with one another, Wicked is timely viewing. I’d gladly venture into a cornfield again to see it, in fact. I wonder if my fellow patrons Saturday night caught the commentary. I hope so.
Sunday I caught up with my Ann Arbor Civic Theatre family and the closing performance of their production of Heathers: The Musical, directed by my friend – the exceptionally talented Ron Baumanis. I saw the film Heathers (starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater) in its original 1988 moment when a bruise-black satire on the horror that high school inflicts was still a novel concept. In the meantime, Mean Girls, Easy A, Edge of Seventeen, and countless other films have swiped the concept and explored it in more sophisticated, less sophomoric ways and half of them have been musicalized as well (or are likely soon to be).
In this violent and ugly societal moment, where mass murders in high schools and celebrity suicides are a daily occurrence, Heathers is a troublesome choice. The film and subsequent musical (written by Legally Blonde the Musical‘s Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy) builds its narrative around an escalating series of homicides-staged-as-suicides and assorted other violent plots against the thuggish queen bees and football jocks roaming the cafeteria. It’s a revenge fantasy, intended to question social hierarchies, by exploring the unspeakable. The problem is that the unspeakable in 1988 is now just another day in 21st century America.
That said, Baumanis and his cast commit to the material with heart and sensitivity while keeping tongue firmly in cheek. The first act is the more difficult pill to swallow as it is full of ugly teenage behavior, set to a peppy rock score, all intended to presage the carnage and social lesson that is to follow in the second act. Imagine Grease the Musical and Carrie the Musical having a baby, genetically modified by the kids from Weird Science. I admit I squirmed in my seat about a dozen times, which I think is testament that the cast was doing it right.
Once the second act kicks in, the narrative shifts to a series of individual character moments, all of which are deeply affecting, particularly Martha Dunnstock’s confessional of unrequited grade school love “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” delivered with maximum heartbreak and just the right amount of cheek by Zoe VanSlooten.
Baumanis is a gifted director who casts his actors not solely based on their talents but also on their abilities to collaborate and to contribute to a cohesive production culture, and he hit a home run again with Heathers. Emily Courcy makes the iconic role of protagonist Veronica her own, with soaring vocals and a healthy dose of side-eyed cynicism. Sam Torres as alpha “Heather” commands every speck of stage dust, an Amazonian mean girl who takes no prisoners. Amy VanDyke and Chloe Grisa as her cohort “Heathers,” however, are not overshadowed, each staking their claim to the title with wit and moxie. Hayden Reboulet is transfixing and delightfully bonkers as football star Ram Sweeney – one part Robin Williams, two parts John Belushi, yet with a lithe gracefulness that I could attribute to neither.
There are three “adults” in the cast who play multiple roles, and Jeff Steinhauer, Nick Boyer, and Vanessa Banister gleefully embrace the anarchic shenanigans while telegraphing the kind of poignant emotional projection we far too often see among parents and educators who don’t realize that kids may need as much discipline and direction as they do “time outs” and “safe spaces.”
Banister practically leaps from the stage in her “Ladies of the Canyon” Berkeley-grad garb, wielding her cowbell like a cudgel, as the earnest but inept guidance counselor who whips up a frenzy of suicide-aspiration with her well-meaning if misguided attempts at student engagement. Yes, her favored accessory is a cowbell.
If Wicked is a show that questions authoritarianism and harassment in the safe guise of cruise-ship polish and all-ages-spectacle, Heathers steers into the curve, embracing every bit of ugliness (and then some) endemic in the “Beyond Thunderdome” American high school experience. The show is dispiriting, discomforting, and utterly essential. Yet, the finale offers a glimmer of hope and the promise of acceptance (once we all honestly admit how g*dd*amned awful we can actually be to one another) with a rousing reprise of its most melodic and anthemic numbers “Seventeen” and “Beautiful” – a “You Can’t Stop the Beat” dance party for the truly downtrodden and nerdy. It’s an acerbic, sardonic show, and I don’t know that I ever want to see it again, but I’m glad I did once. I’m proud Ann Arbor Civic had the bravery to do it, and I hope others follow suit.
Finally, the Tonys. Ah, the Tonys. The theatre-lovers’ prom. Sunday night, hosted with shaggy charm by Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, the awards broadcast (if it wasn’t cut off by the nightly news in your neck of the woods) did an exceptional job sending a message of inclusion and transgression without totally thumbing its collective nose at Trump and his hard-charging followers.
(Well, except Robert DeNiro … he said what all of us were thinking in what was basically the left’s version of Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair a few years ago. And I loved it.)
There were tear-jerking moments: Garfield’s acceptance remarks (alongside Nathan Lane’s, one of the more eloquent and thoughtful speeches of the evening), the all-out love for peace-be-with-us musical The Band’s Visit, and a remarkably authentic and guile-free performance of “Seasons of Love” by the Parkland drama club teens. That song has become so cliched, but they sure as h*ll made it work again.
Sure, there are far too many musicals now adapting popular movies – but we’ve always had that on Broadway, and I’m guessing those who are troubled are actually bothered that the popular movies being adopted aren’t their popular movies. I was surprisingly smitten with the numbers from SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical and Mean Girls (itself just a less strident riff on Heathers); and who would have thought I’d be excited about the umpteenth revival of Carousel or My Fair Lady, but both productions seem to embrace the inherent sociopathic dysfunction baked into their respective concepts on the way to crafting revivals relevant for their simultaneous commentary on yesterday and today.
So, the theatre. It heals. It offers us a calm harbor in which to observe and view the most troubling aspects of our world, of those around us, and of ourselves. Thank you, theatre.
And … as a bit of postscript as prelude: please order, download, ingest (however people consume music these days) Betty Buckley’s latest album Hope. Her gift is in her ability to draw upon the music of the stage and the FM dial and everything in between to offer – in the truest sense of cabaret – sharp-eyed criticism of this wackadoodle world and a bit of tonic to soothe our troubled souls. Somehow, she is also getting me to like “Steely Dan,” which I thought would never happen. I leave you with some lyrics from the title track “Hope” by Jason Robert Brown:
“And so we sing a song about hope/Though I can’t guarantee there’s something real behind it/I have to try to show my daughters I can find it/And so today –/When life is crazy and impossible to bear –/It must be there/Fear never wins/That’s what I hope/See? I said ‘hope.’/The work begins.”
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 Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.