Wicked witches, hateful Heathers, terrific Tonys … and a cowbell: a summer weekend of theatre and tolerance (Wicked’s national tour stop in Toledo, Ann Arbor Civic’s Heathers, & 2018 Tony Awards)

“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.

Yours truly with my Drood castmate Sarah Sweeter and my Legally Blonde castmate Donna Wolbers

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.”

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Drood reunites – yours truly, Banister, Sweeter

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.

 

“Nevertheless, she persisted.” Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) … Detroit’s Opera MODO

“Nevertheless, she persisted.” Funny to consider that phrase apropos to a fairy tale princess, but darn if Opera MODO’s latest production Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) doesn’t give glorious vocce to that timely and essential concept. I’m with her, indeed.

Directed brilliantly (and I mean brilliantly) by designer/director Moníka Essen, with a very clever original English translation by librettist Caitlin Cashin, La Cenerentola offers a Cinderella for our modern age: selfie-obsessed stepsisters with cotton candy colored hair; a wicked stepfather who looks like the bastard child of Stanley Tucci’s “Caesar Flickerman” from The Hunger Games and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld; a fairy godmother in Chanel couture who would be a kick-a** contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race; TWO princes in skinny suits and hipster garb; and a Cinderella as a stifled artiste who gives as good as she gets.

In all transparency, my day-time employer Kerr Russell sponsored this production, and I was privileged enough to attend the final dress rehearsal in Essen’s home/performance space “The Fortress of Fun.” (Imagine the Kennedy Compound as designed by Marc Chagall and Dr. Seuss. This home is divine. I didn’t want to leave.)

Essen makes excellent use of the space (obvi) with the first and final acts transpiring in her cavernous and elegant living room/bar, some transitional moments as the audience is treated to libations and snacks in the courtyard, and a “ball”/Paris is Burning vogue-off centerpiece in Essen’s adjacent art gallery. The immersive approach is far from gimmicky. With a wink and a smile, Essen and her ensemble embrace the kitsch and the pathos and take their viewers on what is, in fact, a thoughtful, poignant, hysterical, and utterly engaging journey (a word that has become cliché, but is spot on here).

Accompaniment is provided by Steven McGhee on a grand piano, an omnipresent musical narrator of sorts, commenting at times on the proceedings with physicality and guffaws. He’s a pip. There are two casts performing in repertory. Our cast was the Friday/Sunday cast.

Julia Hoffert is a battle-ready Cinderella for the ages, as much Amazonian princess (think Wonder Woman with a painter’s palette) as Disney one. Her vocals soar, but her acting seals the deal, providing a haunted and heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring narrative arc of a woman reclaiming her soul.

The rest of the ensemble are equally brilliant and technically proficient. Lindsay Terrell and Erika Thomspon simultaneously terrify and amuse as Cinderella’s truly horrid siblings. There isn’t one piece of beautifully appointed scenery they don’t gleefully chew. Kurt Frank makes skeeziness a joy to behold as patriarch Don Magnifico. Ben Boskoff is a luminous and dreamy Prince Ramiro (this boy can sing!), and Jacob Surzyn is an utter lark as the Prince’s foil and sidekick Dandini.

But snatching wigs. And stealing. the. show? Aaron Von Allmen as Cinderella’s savior Alidoro, a fairy godmother with attitude who inspires both her charge Cinderella and the audience to be bold, to be bad, and to not take guff from anyone. It is a brilliant addition to the production to have a fierce and funny drag queen be the shaman who drives transformation of the most magical kind: becoming true to one’s self.

As you can imagine, the costuming is smart, yet economical. Not a prop nor a sight gag are wasted, and, every moment adds up to crystalline narrative coherence. I’m not an opera person (I’m sure the MODO folks are tired of hearing that), which is what makes what they do SO brilliant, creating accessible yet sophisticated entree to one of the most beautiful art forms. As my friend Jane Kang texted me after the show about her husband, “Ben was scared it would be too artsy for him … but he LOVED it.”

That is true. And I would posit that the reason we all loved it – and trust me, I haven’t observed as delighted an audience in a long time – is that the production spoke in wise and witty ways to our present human condition of cultural atrophy and of stunted identity and how we owe it to ourselves to rise up, push back, and, yes, persist. Do not miss this show.

  • Rossini’s Cenerentola! Tickets available HERE!
  • May 24-27, 2018 at The Fortress of Fun

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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.

The King and I at Detroit’s Fox Theatre: A puzzlement worth solving


king and I banner

Originally published by Encore Michigan

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is a puzzlement. For the modern viewer at least. The classic show has one of the most beautiful and haunting scores in the legendary R&H canon, but that book … that book. It’s one part Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, one part Westernized history lesson of a culture that deserved better – a fetishization of Asian stereotypes that somehow doubles upon itself as a stringent critique of racism, ethnocentrism, and misogyny.

The King and I is very much a “have its cake and eat it too” smorgasbord of mid-century tropes. Is it a Rorschach test indicting Westerners’ elitist, imperialist, entitled tendencies, or is it simply a smug regurgitation of prejudices for self-satisfied commercial ends? That whole “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet in the second act was likely a provocative critique of racism in its day, but our post-Book of Mormon-conditioned cynicism now brings the sequence a whole new layer of culturally appropriated meta-awkwardness.

Blessedly, Lincoln Center’s recent Tony-winning revival, now touring nationally and currently running at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, sidesteps (mostly) the show’s more cringe-worthy moments with a light, humanistic approach that focuses less on spectacle (although there is just the right amount of glitz) and more on the quiet moments as Anna and the King find their appreciation for each other as people not stereotypes. The time-warped jokes about hoop skirts and polygamy still abound, but the production and its cast do a lovely job winking at the clunkier bits without condescending to the source material or breaking characterization. That’s an impressive high wire act.

king and IThe cast is sublime, with leads Elena Shaddow (Anna), Jose Llana (King of Siam), Joan Almedilla (Lady Thiang), and Q Lim (Tuptim) offering riched, nuanced turns on iconic characters. Llana plays up the childlike whimsy of an authoritarian wise enough to know his limitations but far too arrogant to openly admit them. His “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” becomes a kind of postmodern emotional shorthand that never devolves into hackneyed shtick (more “I am Groot,” less “That’s what SHE said!”).

Shaddow presents a fiery and steely Anna, overlayed with poignant notes of loss and heartache -#ImWithHoopSkirt. Almedilla avoids the community theatre pitfall of devolving Lady Thiang into Cinderella’s Lady Tremaine, painting a portrait of a dutiful if wounded courtesan who finds agency working between the cracks in a broken system. Her “Something Wonderful” is a heartbreaking, pretzel-logic showstopper.

Q Lim’s Tuptim – offered as a gift of “property” to the King at the show’s beginning (even though her heart belongs to another) – is the show’s moral compass, revealing the toxic hypocrisy at the heart of Siam’s patriarchy. Her “My Lord and Master” is ablaze with a welcome feminist undercurrent that might be anachronistic to this show and its setting but perfectly welcome in this #MeToo era. “We Kissed In a Shadow” takes on an increased urgency in Lim’s hands as well. Thank goodness.

king and I posterAs expected, the costumes (Catherine Zuber) and sets (Michael Yeargen) are divine. You can’t do this show without some sartorial sumptuousness, and Zuber delivers, her cast awash in gorgeous, flowing jewel-toned silks. The sets are more evocative than detailed, filling the space with floating, gliding pillars that represent a number of locales. Yeargen’s scenic work brings a lovely and surreal dream-like quality to the proceedings which suits Bartlett Sher’s contemporary and self-aware direction.

The King and I is a classic that deserves to be rediscovered by modern audiences, and this production is one for the ages, smoothing over any problematic datedness with a fresh and humane approach. This production celebrates the wonder and beauty of cultures finding appreciation for each other and, more importantly, of people letting go of gendered and racial pretenses and embracing their common humanity.


king and I audienceReel 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 We Start Again, Please?” NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Live in Concert

Jesus_Christ_Superstar_LiveI wouldn’t exactly call myself an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. I like his musicals more than I might care to admit. There is something intoxicating about an indulgently baroque score that is riddled with random hair metal guitar licks and disco drum beats. I loved an album he did eons ago with his brother Julian Lloyd Webber called Variations in which he basically “dance remixed” Paganini into submission. I suspect that’s where my fascination with musical reinvention began. Oh, I saw the film Evita about a dozen times in 1996 at the peak of my Madonna obsession, and I dearly loved it, although it doesn’t hold up as I’d hoped in light of more celebratory, effusive, less self-conscious film musicals that would follow.

I’m even less sprung on “He is Risen” #SoBlessed Easter spectacle and pageantry. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and, at some point, Easter took on an almost insufferably sanctimonious quality among the social media posts I would read and observe from friends and family members. Not sure how and when that happened, but, as for me, I’m more of a “Here comes Peter Cottontail” #CadburyEgg kind of Easter person.

So I approached with YUGE trepidation NBC’s latest live musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Live in Concert starring pop/rock stars John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Alice Cooper alongside theatrical luminaries like Hamilton’s Brandon Victor Dixon and Porgy and Bess’ Norm Lewis.

I was wrong. It was pretty fabulous with a dystopian post-punk quality that was more George Orwell than Mel Gibson and a color-blind casting approach that was more Sesame Street than Sean Hannity. Producers Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, and Marc Platt generally know their way around a musical (NBC’s Peter Pannotwithstanding). With this production, they seemed to be less interested in staging a family friendly holiday confection (remember that creepy Wal-Mart clan from The Sound of Music Live’s commercials? shudder) than in presenting allegorical commentary on the fragmented state of our world today.

Norm Lewis

Lewis

It is a testament to directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski that they allowed the music and the performances to drive the spectacle, avoiding the overdone trap of previous live musicals with their veritable nesting doll of detailed sets that segue seamlessly one to the next. No, with Jesus Christ Superstar, settings were evoked through language and sound and cleverly used props and set pieces, surrounded by graffiti strewn walls and scaffolding used for exits and entrances and the occasional flogging and/or hanging (fun times!).

Maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention in vacation Bible school, but I wasn’t always sure what the heck was going on during Jesus Christ Superstar. The ubiquitous commercial breaks after every big number derailed narrative momentum. The sound quality overall and the challenges of actor articulation/projection while performing in a vast, echoing Brooklyn warehouse contributed as well. The visibly live audience was a smart if distracting choice, adding to the cult-like adoration of the titular figure but often drowning out important lyrical bits.

Jesus Christ Superstar arguably also had the most uniformly excellent cast we’ve seen yet in one of these live productions. Nary a scenery-chewing Christopher Walken nor balsa-wooden Allison Williams in the bunch. The theatre vets faired best, with Dixon and Lewis leading the charge. Lewis as Caiaphas was suitably haunted and haunting as the Jewish high priest who organizes the plot to rid this rabble rouser from their midst. The show was grounded beautifully by his easy-to-take-for-granted performance.

brandon-victor-dixon-jesus-christ-superstar

Dixon

In the showier role as Judas, Dixon left it all on the field (sometimes to the detriment of diction), offering a portrayal rife with conflict and fear: love for a friend versus uncertainty that Jesus’ chosen path made any damn sense at all, layered with just enough resentment and jealousy to make it utterly believable. His final number, performing the show’s title song, was a barnstormer, replete with costuming that made Dixon look like a glittering disco ball.

Alice Cooper preened and strutted appropriately as King Herod whose one song (literally “King Herod’s Song”) is basically a toxic vaudevillian turn, leeringly challenging Jesus to provide evidence of any miraculous abilities at all. Cooper didn’t have to do much other than just be Cooper whose decrepit looks overlaid with his signature stage makeup and hair made for a compellingly repulsive portrayal. With Herod’s song and the subsequent “Trial before Pilate” (British stage vet Ben Daniels made for a kinky, mustache-twirling prefect … still not sure what I thought of him but I couldn’t look away), the die is cast for Jesus and the institutional conspiracy to cut short Christ’s anarchic message of love and inclusion and acceptance entered its final stage.

That was the aspect of this production that spoke to me the most, perhaps because of this ugly current milieu in which we live. Take, for instance, those brave, big-hearted Parkland kids who are pilloried by the falsely fair-and-balanced prophets of “freedom” every time they speak their truth. This production did SUCH an effective job demonizing the forces working against Jesus, did SUCH an effective job depicting the ugly mobs calling for his crucifixion, did SUCH an effective job revealing the insidious intersection of greed and power-mongering that it sent chills down my spine. I was less interested in the show as reflection of faith as I was in its revelatory “more things change, the more they stay the same” positioning.

I kept wondering how Fox News, who cozies up to such a feverishly Evangelical base, would find a way to deride this production which carries in its heart a pretty arch critique of the very demagoguery that is Fox’s stock-in-trade these days. I’m still waiting. Maybe they’ll just counter with a live production of Grease 2.

John Legend was a bit of a cipher as Jesus, which accidently (or intentionally?) aided this direction. His voice all Nat King Cole creamy smooth was an interesting juxtaposition to the jagged rock orchestration surrounding it, but his acting range just doesn’t exist. He can’t help but exude kindness, but otherwise his facial expressions seemed limited to surprised, placid, and worried … with barely any distinction between those. It didn’t much matter. The machinery of Webber’s music, coupled with the sharp overall POV of the production, formed an unstoppable steamroller with Legend along for the ride. When Legend as Jesus finally disappears into the great beyond (with a floating cross effect that was gobsmacking in a “how did they do that?!” way), we are left with the uncertainty of living in a world that punishes kindness and rewards cruelty.

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I am no theologian by any stretch, but I read some online comments where people unfamiliar with the musical wondered why it didn’t continue on through the “resurrection.” I think the fact that it does not address that part of the tale imbues Jesus Christ Superstar with a greater universalism.

We leave the piece with as much doubt as we entered. We are given no easy answers. Is Judas’ agnosticism valid? Why do we live in such a world where compassion is rewarded with utter rejection and abject fear? Why is love seen as weakness? Why are the biggest pronouncers of their faith often the worst hypocrites?

That is my idea of a “passion” play. Sounds like something Washington, D.C. should watch. On repeat.

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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.

‪Honored to be one of #AMAfeed’s featured #authorsAMA. My #askmeanything starts Thursday 3/15 at 9 am! #geeksunite

Well, that’s nifty! Honored to be one of AMAfeed’s featured #authorsAMA. My #askmeanything starts Thursday 3/15 at 9 am! #geeksunite – here.

I love movies, musicals, superheroes, cartoons, action figures, & miscellaneous geekery. I love talking about them even more. Ask me anything!

I’ve been posting my movie musings at www.reelroyreviews.com for five years now … much to the chagrin of true arbiters of taste. And at one point a publisher (Open Books) decided to turn my online shenanigans into a couple of books. I tend to go see whatever film has been most obnoxiously hyped, marketed, and oversold in any given week. Art films? Bah! Won’t find too many of those discussed by yours truly. And every once in awhile, I may review a TV show, theatrical production, record album, concert, or book (yeah, probably not too many of those either). So ask me anything … I act, sing, write, laugh, cry, collect, and obsess in my downtime … and I market lawyers to pay the bills.

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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.

“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 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.

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.

Canton Chamber of Commerce Business Spotlight on “Life is a Cabaret,” February 7, benefiting American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life (VIDEO)

Enjoy this video coverage of our upcoming cabaret performance: https://youtu.be/B5HoWBkM3wU – the Canton Chamber sure did a lovely job covering our event. Cabaret producer/director Denise Staffeld is exceptional, isn’t she? As is music director Kevin Robert Ryan – and, yes, you get to hear me sing in this clip. (And, to my animal loving friends, I have nothing to do with that coyote commercial in the middle of this, nor am I particularly thrilled with the guidance it offers toward the end.) Tix for Feb 7 are going fast! Click here.

A live musical fundraiser featuring Broadway tunes. Hosted by Relay for Life in partnership with Women’s Life Society Chapter 827, Chicks for Charity. Enjoy delicious desserts & a Cold Stone Creamery Ice Cream Bar; while bidding on the Silent Auction. Cash Bar will also be available. Join us with residents of Canton, Plymouth and surrounding communities to kick-off the annual fund-raising season. All proceeds and donations will benefit the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth to attack cancer from every angle. Be entertained at ‘Life is a Cabaret’ while attacking cancer. Relay For Life of Canton and Plymouth is May 19, 2018 in Heritage Park, Canton. Relay for Life is a team fundraising event where team members take turns walking around the pond in Heritage Park. A complementary luncheon for Cancer Survivors is also held during the event. Relay is the signature fundraising event of the American Cancer Society. Reception 6pm-7pm. Performance 7pm-9pm.

www.cantonvillagetheater.org

Ticket Information

Adults  $22.00

Senior  $22.00

Youth  $22.00

Tickets: Online or visit or call the theater 10am-2pm Monday-Friday. 734-394-5300 ext 3. PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE. CALLS WILL BE RETURNED WITHIN 24 HOURS OR WEEKEND CALLS BY END OF DAY MONDAY. All ages must have a ticket. No refunds or exchanges.

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.

“A little town called persistence.” Pitch Perfect 3

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m not a fan of extraneous sequels to sweetly self-contained high-concept comedies. I loathe cash-grab second or third chapters to the kind of original, fresh, humanistic sleeper hits which dumbfound Hollywood execs who believe the only way to climb the corporate ladder is by churning out one superhero opus after another. Often, the follow-up overemphasizes any buzzy kitsch that defined the first film and buries any shaggy underdog appeal in a mountain of glib slapstick and opportunistic product placement.

To me, Pitch Perfect 2 was, ahem, a perfect example of this commercial phenomenon, taking Rebel Wilson’s free-spirited second-banana “Fat Amy” and turning her into the unfunny, overexposed Mater (see Pixar’s Cars 2 … no don’t) of a cappella singing franchises. Poor Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), normally a luminous scene-stealer in any film, didn’t stand a chance.

I’m happy to report that Pitch Perfect 3, while still utterly unnecessary, is a fabulous course correction to the enterprise, featuring the sweet harmonies and girl-power shenanigans of the now graduated-from-college “Barden Bellas” in all their goofy show choir glory.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Directed by series-newcomer Trish Sie and written by Kay Cannon and Mike White, the threequel takes us on a European road trip as the Bellas, generally dissatisfied with the let-down of workaday adult life, stage one last hurrah, joining a USO tour alongside a surly power-pop-punk quartet (led by delightfully arch mean girl Ruby Rose), a Li’l John-adjacent rap act, and a mullet-wearing bluegrass jug band. What could have been a cliched let-down (European road-trip … really?) ends up a zingy meringue (albeit still pretty cliched) in the capable hands of the film’s solid cast.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The vocals, as ever, are impeccable and guilty fun, as the Bellas aca-remix one overplayed pop radio ditty after another. The ensemble is populated with pros (Anna Camp, Hairspray‘s Brittany Snow, True Grit/Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Alexis Knapp) who know how to spin sitcom stereotypes into compelling and relatable human beings.

Blessedly, Kendrick is again in the driver’s seat narratively. The film reorients the series-focus back to her Beca character, still exhibiting outsize talent in a mediocre world that doesn’t know what to do with a whip-smart woman who isn’t particularly interested in playing reindeer games.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yes, series regulars Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins also return as caustic a cappella competition commentators who seem to have landed in the Pitch Perfect films on their way to a Christopher Guest satire (e.g. Best-in-Show, A Mighty Wind). When asked by Kendrick where they came from when the duo materializes from thin air on an Air Force tarmac, Banks deadpans, “A little town called persistence.” They are a total hoot, even if they do appear to be in an entirely different film from everyone else.

There is a jarringly odd subplot involving Daddy’s Home 2‘s John Lithgow (must he be in every movie this holiday season?) as Fat Amy’s sleazy Eurotrash high-stakes criminal father, and it’s a testament to the film and to Lithgow and Wilson that their rapport works as well as it does. The subplot seems tonally out-of-place with the rest of the proceedings, but it does give rise to a truly killer aca-cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” by the Bellas. The number runs twice in the film, and it is so sharply executed that it could have appeared a third time and not overstayed its welcome.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Pitch Perfect 3 is a holiday trifle but a welcome one as it marries genuine wit and heart with a celebration of friendship and song and female agency that is always needed onscreen. A fourth entry in the series seems inevitable, and I won’t complain (much). The easy, warm, and inclusive dynamic of this cast is one I will gladly leave on repeat.

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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.