Queen Latifah and the Toledo Symphony at the Toledo Art Museum Peristyle

To quote Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.” That declaration very well could have been the concert title for Queen Latifah’s exceptional, fiery, funny, warm performance tonight with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the charming, witty, vibrant Michelle Merrill. The show was held in the Toledo Museum of Art’s stunning and slightly surreal “peristyle,” a Greek Revival colosseum that puts Vegas and EPCOT to shame.

Merrill opened the evening with exquisite, albeit Latifah-less, symphonic sets from Chicago, Porgy & Bess, and Hairspray as well as selections from Duke Ellington and Leroy Anderson. The brilliant acoustics highlighted the fine detail from the orchestra, and Merrill’s ebullient, joyous conducting was a fizzy delight to observe.

Note: during the show’s second half, when Latifah’s house band (remarkable talents in their own right) joined the orchestra, the acoustics got unfortunately muddy, likely a result of limited rehearsal time and unnecessary amplification. It didn’t hurt the show or its marvelous energy, but it made sitting on the first few rows feel like aural bombardment at times.

As for Latifah, the quintessential multi-hyphenate (actor, musician, raconteur, humanitarian), this Oscar Nominee (Chicago) exceeded the hype, offering a sunny, sharp, inclusive, pitch-perfect delivery and onstage persona. A voice and a personality that lifts the rafters, she glided effortlessly from standards to jazz to blues to Broadway to hip-hop.

Highlights included a disco swirl around Bill Withers’ poignant “Same Love That Made Me Laugh”; a delicate crystalline take on Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man”; a surging and transformational spin on The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin'”; a heartbreakingly anthemic “I Know Where I’ve Been” (which Latifah had immortalized in late producer and friend Craig Zadan’s film of Hairspray); a timely #MeToo revisit to her early feminist hip-hop anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.”; and a pulsing encore of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” marrying the best of actor and vocalist, as Latifah wrung every bit of pathos from the song’s haunting subtext of abandonment and regret.

It was a dynamite evening, simultaneously intimate and epic. Whether Latifah was goofing on the indigestion her hot dog dinner was causing or riffing with her band on a decade-old rap jam from Soulja Boy, she would always snap back to center: an icon of grace and dignity, compassion and independence who champions the marginalized and demands a better day for all. Ladies first, indeed. (Oh, and she grabbed my hand as she left the stage! Swoon!)

P.S. I’m guessing the symphony crowd hasn’t heard lyrics like these in that space before. Time for change, I reckon …

“You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya.
A man don’t really love you if he hits ya.
This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more.
I’m not your personal whore, that’s not what I’m here for.
And nothing good gonna come to ya til you do right by me.
Brother you wait and see (Who you calling a bitch?).

U.N.I.T.Y., U.N.I.T.Y. that’s a unity (You gotta let him know.)”

‘Lights. Camera. Cure.’ Theatrical Event Raises Over $20,000 For American Cancer Society Relay For Life

Originally published by Encore Michigan and BroadwayWorld

Photo Credit: Lia DeBiasi [More photos here.]

Lights. Camera. Cure. – a special theatrical event held on Wednesday, February 6, that featured classic film hits as sung by local performers at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill – was a sell-out success with a capacity crowd of 400 patrons. The show raised over $20,000 for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life Canton-Plymouth.

Producer/director Denise Staffeld of Lake Michigan Credit Union observed, “Last year, we had a vision to do a Cancer Society fundraiser that celebrated the healing power of Broadway. We sold out the house, and raised over $15,000. I had hoped this year would exceed last, both financially and artistically, but I never anticipated this. I am so very grateful.”

[View the show finale “Come Alive” here.]

Music direction was by Kevin Robert Ryan, Director of Music and Liturgy at St. Thomas a’Becket Catholic Church. Jeff Mongrain, Sonny Teodoro, and Joel Walter rounded out the orchestra. Songs included numbers from movies like The Greatest Showman, The Lion King, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Mary Poppins, Dirty Dancing, Oklahoma!, First Wives Club, The Bodyguard, Aladdin, Quest for Camelot, Moana, Pearl Harbor, The Secret Garden, Fiddler on the Roof, The Jungle Book, and many more. 

Roy Sexton, director of marketing for the Clark Hill law firm, emceed the evening as well as performed. A published author of two books of film reviews Reel Roy Reviews, Sexton noted in his opening remarks that “film is a great unifier, helping audiences to escape the troubles of daily life and to aspire to something greater.”

The cast was comprised of semi-professional and professional talent from throughout Southeast Michigan’s theatre community: Shirley Auty, Denise Staffeld, Aimee Chapman, Christina Bair, Cathy Golden, Cathy McDonald, Caitlin Chodos, Noel Bittinger, Julzie Gravel, Bethany Basanese, Keri Mueller, Janine Creedon, Tracey Bowen, Diane Dimauro, Roy Sexton, Jeff Steinhauer, AJ Kosmalski, Bruce Hardcastle, Tim Chanko, Kurt Bowen, Tracy Neil, Carl Nielsen, Anna Nielsen, and David Dilsizian.

[Enjoy the cast’s take on “carpool karaoke” here.]

Kelvin Elvidge served as sound designer/engineer. Lia DeBiasi was the production’s stage manager, and Daniel Pocock assistant stage managed. There were special appearances by Tom Cassidy and Canton Township Supervisor Pat Williams opening remarks by Kim Scartelli, and event support by Megan Schaper (American Cancer Society) and Tammy Brown and Marion Rozum (Chicks 4 Charity.

Before the performance, there was a red carpet reception, with silent auction and desserts. A Facebook Live pre-show was hosted by Canton Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Paden and Stephanie Tierney. [View video here.]

American Cancer Society Community Development Manager Megan Schaper noted “This event truly embodies the motto attacking cancer from every angle. I was in awe of the show and I can’t wait to see and support what this show inspires these communities to do next.” Schaper supports Canton, Plymouth, Westland, Wayne, Ypsilanti, Livonia and Redford.

NOTE: I had an amazing time working on LightsCameraCure – honored to have been part of this exceptional evening where over $20K was raised for American Cancer Society. Thank you, Denise Staffeld and Kevin Ryan, for the opportunity. It was an incredible experience. This cast was divine!

Thank you to my sweet friends who came out and supported: Nikki Bagdady Horn, Lauren Crocker, Colleen McConnell Fowler, William Fitzgerald (longest journey – from CHICAGO!), Ashley Kryscynski, MSW, Michelle McAllister, Melissa Francis, Lori (Rundall) Compagner, Gabby Rundall, Pattie Curtis, Jim Paglino, Leo Babcock, Mary Newton, Nico LaFoudj, Christopher Tremblay, Ed.D., Sheri Hardcastle, and anyone I missed. ❤️

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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.