“I just don’t want to lose the part of me that is, you know, talented.” A Star Is Born (2018)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I wasn’t certain the world needed another version of A Star Is Born: 1937 – Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; 1954 – Judy Garland and James Mason; 1976 – Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; and now 2018 – Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. And we nearly had a version starring Beyonce and directed by (shudder) Clint Eastwood.

(I’ve always thought they should revisit the Garland musical with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, but, alas, I think that ship has sailed.)

I was wrong about the need for this latest version. Dead wrong. Director and star Bradley Cooper has made an exceptional film and the perfect version of this timeworn story for our post-millennial malaise.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

For those who’ve seen any or all of the previous versions, the familiar fractured fairy tale story beats remain: male star at his peak meets female unknown; the parabolic trajectories of their respective careers intersect as hers is on the ascent and his is …not so much; he has substance abuse problems; she wins a major award and he embarrasses the crap out of her on live TV; things continue to spiral and tragedy ensues, but like a phoenix from the ashes, she reclaims her destiny in a triumphant final number. Exeunt.

Yet, this version is unlike the others. The simplistic, melodramatic narrative belies a more nuanced approach that jettisons broadly drawn archetypes and he said/she said outright villainy. Rather than mire in toxic masculinity his character Jackson Maine (an homage-in-name-only to James Mason’s “Norman Maine” in the 1954 film), Cooper gives us a man broken by such impulses (as evidenced by his neglectful father), a man whose heart is so shattered that all he knows to do is sing and drink (a lot). But he’s not mean. He’s basically sweet. Lost. And consummately effed up.

Following a concert performance and in pursuit of more liquor, Jackson stumbles into a drag bar, and, rather than act like a macho jackass, settles in and enjoys the show. Lady Gaga’s Ally is an occasional performer there, and her version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” catches Jackson’s eyes and ears.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In all other versions (at least as I recall), the story takes a Svengali-like approach in that the male character remakes the woman into the titular “star.” She is beholden to him, at some level, for her success – or at least he thinks so, and the less-enlightened dudes in the audience might inadvertently sympathize with his plight.

Cooper, working from a script written in collaboration with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, offers a more balanced approach. These two incomplete souls heal each other, with Ally’s spirit and agency bringing much needed light into Jackson’s world and he merely holding open the door through which her natural talent can shine.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As a result, the dynamic changes greatly in the second and third act, wherein, in other versions, the male character  typically becomes a fiend. Jackson isn’t a fiend. He’s just a mess. That is both refreshing and a tad problematic story-wise. We see Ally transform into a pop diva over which Jackson becomes mildly contemptuous … and she ain’t having any of that. “I don’t want to lose the part of me that is, you know, talented,” she notes. Ally is very much her father’s daughter (Andrew Dice Clay is manopausal magic as her doting meat-head daddy); and she may be a devoted caretaker (to Jackson, to her family), but she is no sucker. The disastrous co-dependence that derails the couples in other versions of the story isn’t as evident (that’s a good thing), but it does tend to take a little steam out of this iteration’s mid-section as we wait for Jackson’s disaffection for the industry (and himself) to lead inevitably to some heartbreaking choices.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen previous takes on the story, but things don’t end well for Jackson. Cooper stages those moments so delicately, so artistically, so humanely. And when Ally has her final “say” through song, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As for the music? That is the third star of this crackerjack film. Written by Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son), Gaga, and Cooper, the songs are a touch Black Keys, a bit Shooter Jennings, and not exactly my cup of tea, but utterly perfect in context. This is the rare movie where the moments that work so well in the trailer work even better in the finished product. You’ve seen the highlights, but you have no idea how impactful they will be in context.

“The Shallow” is most likely to become the “I Will Always Love You” or “My Heart Will Go On” inescapable movie hit of this decade. However, in the film when Ally takes that stage and Gaga’s triumphant, hurricane wail lets loose as the ultimate validation of a female voice that has been ignored and mistreated? Your hair will literally stand on end. Gaga is a fantastic talent – she knows how to break your heart and then turn on a dime and allow you to soar alongside her. That’s a rare gift. Cooper does such a fantastic job staging the thunderous concert footage, you truly feel immersed in the performative aspects of these characters’ lives.

At one point, Sam Elliott – all beautiful silvery Sam-Elliott-trademark-gravitas as Jackson’s older brother (it makes sense in the film) – intones to Ally, “All the artist can tell you is how they see those 12 notes [in an octave]. Jackson loved how you saw those notes and what you had to tell.” At core, this is a film about compassion and about intention and about loving those who love us no matter how broken we/they may be. Jackson sings, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” Indeed, it’s well past time. Well past time.

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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.

“Let this be a sign. Let this road be mine.” Broadway’s Anastasia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve got a history with Anastasia. My mother and I saw the animated film in theatres in 1997, past the age of so-called social acceptability for a mother and son to go see an animated “princess musical.” Furthermore, we were both ugly crying within 15 minutes of the film’s opening, overtaken by the lush poignancy of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Broadway-ready score. Admittedly, we had been through about 15+ years of Faulknerian extended-family drama at that point, so we might have been raw nerves primed to lose our sh*t as an amnesiac Anastasia revisits the literal ghosts of her Romanov family past to the haunting strains of “Once Upon a December” as vocalized by the incomparable Liz Callaway.

A few months later, I decided to stage these bizarre, self-indulgent one-man cabarets on the campus of Wabash College (my alma mater where I was working as a development officer) and included both “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past” among my selections, using other people’s lyrics to express my late 20s existential angst.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I also recall that my mother and I both thought the animated film – 20th Century Fox’ answer to Disney’s nouveau blockbuster classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid – lost its way narratively when it turned master manipulator Rasputin into a nausea-inducing Maleficent knock-off with a comic relief sidekick bat Bartok, who would go on to star in his own series of wacky straight-to-video films. I’m not sure anyone would have predicted the Russian revolution and the tragic gunning down of the entire Romanov royal clan would eventually lead to a pile of Bartok the Magnificent DVDs in a Wal-Mart clearance bin one day. Ah, capitalism wins after all.

So, it was with a giddy heart and a heaping helping of trepidation that I entered Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre on Wednesday evening, September 26, to view the Broadway hit reinvention of Anastasia. (Please note, the last – and only other – time I saw a show on Broadway was when I attended, alongside Frances Sternhagen’s daughter Sarah Carlin, Paul Simon’s legendary flop The Capeman. And, other than the company I kept, that show sucked.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m happy to report that someone somewhere must have overheard that conversation my mother and I had 20 years ago (kidding!) and jettisoned the lousy script from the animated film and gave playwright Terrence McNally carte blanche to build a new narrative around the fantastic score. New songs have been added obvi – how else can they justify ticket prices starting at $160?! And the production values are absolutely to. die. for.

Costuming by Linda Cho is music box exquisite, and Alexander Dodge’s scenic design integrating flawlessly with Aaron Rhyne’s photo-realistic projection design is a gobsmacking wonder. I don’t know how they will tour this, but between the turntable at center-stage, the rotating flats of arches that outline everything from the Russian royal palace to communist bloc headquarters to Parisian nightclubs, and the breathtaking video projections that immerse the audience in a thrill-a-minute train ride or sweeping hillside vistas, I was in awe.

Curtain Call

Surrounded as I was by a sea of late-20-something women (all of whom were likely the little girls seated beside my mother and me when we saw the animated film), I stuck out like a sore thumb in the audience. And I didn’t care.

In its bumpy opening moments, the show seems JUST a touch theme-parkish, and it probably didn’t help that the woman playing Anastasia’s queen mother kept tripping over the hem of her Swarovski-crystal encrusted gown … and looking REALLY annoyed every time she did so. We are introduced to Anastasia as a child and the sumptuous excess of the Romanov family in a ballroom scene that is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

However, with a flick of digital magic and some ominous lighting cues, we are informed that the Romanov family has been summarily executed (hey, that’s a fun start to a family musical … if it worked for Bambi, I guess) and the littlest princess Anastasia may or may not have been killed alongside them. I must admit I wasn’t sure how they were going to pull that off. It’s kind of an important piece of set up. They did so tastefully and artistically and substantively, signaling straight away that there would be no singing and dancing bats in this interpretation.

We are then introduced to the adult Anastasia, now going by Anya, who seems to remember none of her upbringing. Unlike the animated film, doubt is placed in the audience’s minds whether or not she, in fact, is the grown-up Anastasia, though she sure does remember a lot of unusual details.

Christy Altomare is a crackerjack Anya, delivering the hit songs with aplomb but adding a contemporary agency to the character that is utterly refreshing. Whether or not Anya is a royal, she suffers no fools gladly. Borrowing liberally from the 1956 classic film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, McNally sets up a narrative where Anya/Anastasia must escape Russia and journey to Paris to meet her surviving grandmother the Dowager Empress (a luminous Jennifer Smith, filling in for Judy Kaye in our performance) to prove her lineage.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

She is aided and abetted by a couple of well-intentioned scalawags Dmitry (dreamy, zippy Zach Adkins whose soaring voice rattles the rafters) and Vlad (Broadway vet John Bolton whose confident ease and crack comic timing nearly carry the show). Of course, initially this duo is only interested in collecting reward money for “finding” Anastasia. In fact, they have set up a casting call to try and coach any young street urchin into the role. It’s like My Fair Lady-meets-American Idol. However, when they start to realize little Anya may in fact be the real deal (clue: remember that music box in the animated film? … it plays an equally important – and merchandisable – a role here), their common decency starts to shine through.

Narrative complications are provided not by an evil immortal magician who can remove his head at will (no Rasputin … yay!), but by a society in turmoil as the Soviet government wants nothing more than to squelch the Romanov legend and give power to the people. (Watching a show about how nutty Russians can be was … odd … in this current political climate, I must admit.) Max Von Essen (Tony nominee for An American in Paris) turns in a solid performance as conflicted military bureacrat Gleb (think Les Miserables Javert without all the scenery chewing) whose hunt for Anya/Anastasia propels our heroes forward.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Once Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad reach Paris in the show’s second act, Anastasia truly comes alive. The stakes are raised. There is a magnificent scene at the ballet where Anya and her grandmother circle one another to the backdrop of Swan Lake (think The King and I‘s “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”). And we are introduced to the Dowager Empress’ lady-in-waiting Countess Lily, who has a sordid past with Vlad. NewsRadio‘s Vicki Lewis normally plays Lily, but we were treated to understudy Janet Dickinson … and she was a MARVEL. The perfect blend of Madeline Kahn and Christine Ebersole. Lily’s role could be a thankless one in lesser hands. She’s pretty much saddled with expository responsibilities. Dickinson turned her two numbers “Land of Yesterday” and “The Countess and the Common Man” into absolute show-stopping barnstormers. If only the entire ensemble had her fire. I’d love to see this woman headline a show ASAP.

That said, on the balance Anastasia is a glittering gem of a musical, heartfelt and transporting with important messages about individuality, compassion, and family in all its forms. Unlike the animated film, the stage show fully embraces the historical underpinnings without losing the escapist fantasy of someone realizing that they just might be royalty. However, this is no rescue-the-princess throwback. Anastasia and the women surrounding her challenge the status quo, call the shots, and do their level best to overcome a world stacked against them. One step at a time. One hope, then another.

Anastasia is currently running at the Broadhurst Theatre. I bought my ticket for 50% off at TKTS. The musical is also launching its national tour. Don’t miss it.

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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 world and the way things are.” Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit’s alumni production of The Wiz

“Sweet thing, let me tell you ’bout the world and the way things are. You’ve come from a different place, and I know you’ve traveled far. … He’s the Wiz. He’s the Wiz. He’s the Wizard of Oz. He’s got magic up his sleeve. He’s the Wizard. And you know without his help it would be impossible to leave. Fantastic powers at his command, and I’m sure that he will understand.” – Addaperle, “He’s the Wizard” from The Wiz

A stranger in a strange land. Myth and parable and children’s literature have long made great use of this trope to teach us lessons in humanity and inhumanity, courage and acceptance. Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Odyssey. Dante’s Inferno. The Phantom Tollbooth. The NeverEnding Story. Star Wars. E.T. On and on.

And, yes, that most all-American of hero’s quest tales: The Wizard of Oz.

I’ve written at length of my adoration, nay obsession, with The Wiz, Charlie Smalls’ 1970s urbanized musicalization of L. Frank Baum’s classic. As a tyke, I recreated the sets from Sydney Lumet’s bleak and transfixing film adaptation out of construction paper and magic markers and Scotch tape. I ruined countless needles on my little Raggedy Ann & Andy portable record player, cranking that two-disc film soundtrack – fished from an Ayr-Way cutout bin in Fort Wayne, Indiana – to insane decibel levels. I can still recite pages of dialogue, and I’d kill to have a Wiz-themed birthday party one day. And the soundtrack was also my gateway drug to all things Quincy Jones – just listen to the original stage score and then study what Q does with said score for the film, deconstructing and rebuilding to such a shiny pop sheen that it takes your breath away.

So, when, in my first meeting as a new board member of Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, I learned that the storied company would be performing The Wiz this summer in a special alumni production, I suggested, if anyone fell through, that I would be happy to play any (or all) of the parts. I’m still waiting for them to get back to me on that. …

Digression … about Mosaic: “Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit is one of Southeast Michigan’s most highly regarded cultural treasures. Our critically acclaimed student-driven performances and national and international tours have brought worldwide attention to Detroit as a center for arts and culture while shining a spotlight on the area’s talented young people and creating new and diverse audiences for the performing arts. Founded by Rick Sperling in 1992 to address gaps in Metro Detroit arts education, Mosaic served 25 young artists in its inaugural year. Today, hundreds of youth from more than 50 Metro Detroit schools participate in Mosaic’s First, Second and Main Stage programs every year. These innovative programs provide expert training, mentoring and opportunity to the area’s young actors, singers, and stage technicians, while fostering a culture of high expectations, active participation and acceptance that serves them beyond the stage.”

Back to The Wiz …  how is Mosaic’s production? Especially for someone as fixated as yours truly? I am happy to report (wearing my critic’s hat, and not my board member one) that the production is warm and funny, contemporary and poignant, zippy and engaging. I said to myself that I wouldn’t cry when Dorothy (a luminous and preternaturally poised Crystal Tigney) sings the sweeping ballad “Home” at the conclusion of her journey through Oz. Nope, not me. I’m tough. Well, one single man tear during the first verse turned into a salty river down my cheeks (and one helluva runny nose) by the time Tigney hit that final soaring note. Dammit.

Directed with heart by Yewande Odetoyinbo, the production is expertly paced and turns the economic scale of Mosaic’s black box space into a strategic advantage, relying on clever costuming (with an assist from Nadia Johnson), minimal props, lighting effects (by Yemisi Odetoyinbo with Seth Swift) and projections (by Lumumba Reynolds), and the exceptional talent (and voices) of the principles and ensemble to sell this oft-told tale.

Odetoyinbo’s direction embraces camp without detracting from the essence of the piece. Glinda (exquisite Krystal Hill who also plays Aunt Em), for example, arrives with a retinue of footmen who hold an electric box fan in front of her so her diaphanous gown billows just so (Beyonce-style). Addaperle (a whip-smart Brittany Myree who doubles as Evilene) works the room like a Vegas comic. The Tin Man (a sparkling D’Marreon Alexander) integrates some charming 80s pop-n-lock into his choreography, and The Lion (a crackerjack, at times heart-wrenching, but always funny Carman Cooper) makes her entrance like a cheesy TV-variety show host, complete with her own back up lion-cub dancers. Justin Shephard is a hoot in the showy titular role, pulling out all the stops as part-time revivalist, full-time huckster.

Tigney, Alexander, Cooper, and Day

Keith Anderson Day, Jr. is a standout as The Scarecrow, invoking both Ray Bolger and Michael Jackson, while making the part completely his own. I’m showing my bias toward the version of The Wiz I first experienced, but the stage Scarecrow’s signature tune “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday” is no “You Can’t Win” (its sonic replacement in the film). Day’s performance of “Day Before Yesterday,” however, has me significantly reconsidering that assessment. Utterly winning, Day struts and pouts, shimmies and shines, landing the number and establishing that this Wiz is going to be something special. It’s a fantastic performance.

Music director DeLashea Strawder – with accompanists Maurice Draughn and Keir Ward – does wonders in the challenging space, nailing every number, eliciting beautiful harmonies and nuanced dynamics from her stellar cast. Javon Jones’ choreography is spry and contemporary, efficiently employing the ensemble to do all the heavy-lifting to convey settings (e.g. Yellow Brick Road) and effects (e.g. the twister that brings Dorothy to Oz). As for that ensemble (Chloe Davis, Myles Dungey, Nya Johnson, Kristianna Marks, Alexandria Miller, Jamiliah Minter, Kaila Scales, Brionne White, and Coleman Ward), they are all in, sassily interacting with the audience and seizing their moments to shine, while always honoring the narrative whole.

Now, perhaps more than ever, The Wiz offers an essential message of inclusion and of challenging the status quo. Home is where the heart is, but, on her journey to rediscover that “feeling we once had,” Dorothy takes her shots at demagogues and bullies, embraces and champions the marginalized, and offers hope to the hopeless. I can’t think of a more important message for today’s America.

Cooper, Tigney, Shephard

Mosaic Youth Theatre’s The Wiz runs one more weekend (August 16-19 with multiple show times) and tickets may be purchased here.

“Well there may be times when you wish you wasn’t born. And you wake one morning just to find your courage gone. But just know that feeling only lasts a little while. You stick with us, and we’ll show you how to smile.” – Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, “Ease on Down the Road”

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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.

 

“At the end of this, I will be exhausted. You probably will be too.” My whirlwind 48-hour career as a motivational speaker and Detroit FM radio DJ … #BeARoySexton?! What is that exactly?!

Photos courtesy Brenda Zawacki Meller, Milan Stevanovich (w/ Chanel Stevanovich), Ziggy Whitehouse, and my iPhone.

  • View video – courtesy Brenda Meller of Meller Marketing – here.

What do you do when you know you need to network and market yourself but the introvert within says, “Uh, maybe later”? On August 9, 2018, Kerr Russell Director of Marketing Roy Sexton (that’s me!) presented strategies for embracing your qualities as an introvert (or for those occasions when you aspire to introversion!) and establishing and maintaining a successful personal brand, both online and in person.

About the session, co-chair Brenda Zawacki Meller of Meller Marketing wrote, “Today my friend and marketing idol Roy Sexton of Kerr Russell presented ‘How to Win the Room When You’d Rather Stay Home’ to a PACKED ROOM at Inforum Michigan Troy. Video link below. Now that the meeting is over, I have to confess: I was freaking out a bit this week. We typically have 30 attendees at this monthly meetup and our registration was at 62 people earlier this week. We were getting pretty close on seating. It was almost going to be ‘standing room only’ at one point! But we brought in extra chairs. This is what happens when you book a ROCK STAR MARKETER for your speaker. I think both his marketing and the topic itself were both reasons for our outstanding turnout. Roy was an amazing presenter. I knew he would be great, but he was even better than I anticipated. Roy has a genuine, approachable, and relatable speaking style. He reminded us introverts that we’re OK to be an introvert. We don’t need to apologize for it, and we can be effective at networking, too. I learned that if you give introverts an assignment at a meeting (live tweeting, taking pics, helping at the registration table), it eases our anxiety. Need a keynote or conference presenter? Check out Roy Sexton. And tell him Brenda sent you. Then, check out the hashtag #BeARoySexton.”

Roy (me again!) has nearly 20 years of experience in marketing, communications, business development, and strategic planning. He earned his BA from Wabash College, his MA (theatre) from The Ohio State University, and his MBA from University of Michigan. He is a graduate of Leadership Detroit and Leadership A2Y. He sits on the boards of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Ann Arbor, Royal Starr Film Festival, Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, EncoreMichigan.com, and Legal Marketing Association – LMA International. A published author with two books (ReelRoyReviews), Roy is an active performer, awarded 2017 Best Actor (Musical) by BroadwayWorld Detroit. He recently received recognition as one of Michigan Lawyers Weekly’s “Unsung Legal Heroes.”

And then THIS happened …

My mother Susie Sexton’s critique of my first (and probably last) radio gig as vacationing Rochelle Burk’s stand-in alongside Robby Bridges on their 96.3 WDVD drive-time show Friday, August 10. This is one of the funnier things I’ve read in a while: “stayed for nearly every second? geesh? you both were fabulous….nice repartee all the way around…I now am no longer a music lover as I was listening to stuff about the smell of sexy sheets and such just to hear your patter? one little bit I missed was when I needed to medicate issie with her pill and she was hiding? the word mousey was said and something about walking down a street? and sears called with a mix-up….they had changed delivery date to aug. 17 and then just called to robot me about tomorrow delivery again…that was sure effing fun. maybe straightened out now. damn 4 hours of choreography, engineering and listening to countless sex-crazed songs….but the patter was mighty fine…spell-check? no…I am exhausted.”

Postscript – she added when we chatted on the phone: “I liked that man (Robby) a lot. He has a kind, sweet quality that is inviting and not snarky, but also very funny. That is rare.” ❤️

And – bonus – Brian Cox, editor of Detroit Legal News, ran my “tech thoughts” article from the Legal Marketing Association’s Strategies Magazine. Whew! You can read the full text here.

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.

 

“But first they must catch you.” The Darkest Minds (film review) and Barn Theatre’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” Richard Adams, Watership Down

When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.

If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.

Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.

Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”

As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!

I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we  begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.

Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!

That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.

Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”

Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.

And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 10, with tickets available at www.barntheatreschool.org

Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.

Bar Show

The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).

Video clips at the bottom of this post.

From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents –  The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.

That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”

Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?

Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.

Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”

Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.

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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.

 

 

“It’s called karma … and it’s pronounced ‘ha!'” Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is it fashionable to hate Mamma Mia!, the international ABBA-stage musical sensation that was parlayed into the biggest box office film-musical of all time ten (!) years ago, starring Meryl Streep? Seems that way. Maybe it’s misogyny or sour grapes or a general critical agnosticism toward anything big, silly, and fun. Maybe people don’t want to admit how much they love infectious Swedish pop songs with nonsensical titles and lyrical metaphors that appear to have been crafted by a roomful of monkeys with typewriters.

Whatever. I liked it. Mostly.

Well, let me equivocate. I appreciated the gaga joy that the original film’s cast seemed to be having – a group of award-winning pros (Streep, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard) who didn’t give a flying fig that they were working from a junk script with a cringe-worthy concept (who’s your daddy?). These talented souls could read an appliance repair manual aloud and make it seem zippy. So what happens when you offer them some catchy-as-eff songs and throw them on a plastic back-lot set designed by Olive Garden with a sound-stage-blue sky that makes your heart ache? Cinematic genius.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Franchise newcomer (is this a franchise yet?) Ol Parker takes over direction from Phyllida Lloyd on the nobody-asked-for-it sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. He does some spectacular reverse engineering to give us an actual film that is just as loopy as before but, you know, gives us characters and motivation and something resembling a plot (sort of).

Since this second entry is basically a greatest hits of a greatest hits package, some songs from the prior film get repeated; some B-side deep cuts you never knew existed (nor wanted to) are employed; and, as a score, all of the numbers are more seamlessly integrated into the story line … which is basically TWO storylines.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

First, Sophie (a luminous Seyfried) is (spoiler alert!) mourning the passing of her mother Donna (Streep, who adds to her odd gallery of beyond-the-grave “angel” characters here), and re-opens the picturesque Greek hotel as a tribute.

Second, in parallel, we learn through flashbacks how young Donna found her island retreat, slept with three different dudes in rapid succession (Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan – all Abercrombie & Fitch adorable and completely disposably interchangeable), and subsequently declared, “To hell with all of ya!”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A crackerjack Lily James (Cinderella, Baby Driver) portrays young Donna. She effortlessly channels and brilliantly reinvents the madcap essence of Streep … despite the fact that the two don’t look one whit alike. Lily is brilliant in the role – unapologetic and fiery. By far, the smartest thing the filmmakers did was casting her. She makes the film. Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies are a hoot as her pals (the younger versions of Baranski and Walters, respectively), and the trio present a compelling and believable dynamic as pals making their way in a world and era (1979) where their free-spirited agency ain’t exactly celebrated. (The more things change…)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the present day, we also see the addition of a criminally underutilized Andy Garcia as the hotel’s concierge/handyman ridiculously named, yes, Fernando. He seems to exist primarily as a narrative device for Cher who literally helicopters in for the last twenty minutes of the movie, phoning in an absolutely brilliant approximation of Cher at her Cher-iest, to croon one of ABBA’s most beloved tunes.

For some illogical reason, Cher, who is only three years older than Streep, plays Streep’s mother. She is about as believable (pun intended) playing Streep’s mother as I would be. Hell, I’d be more believable. “Do you belieeeeeve, in life after love … love … love?” But who cares? In the Teflon-coated Mamma Mia universe, all things exist in servitude to hedonistic joy. And you don’t get more hedonistic nor more joyous than Cher singing “Fernando,” as exquisitely escapist as a big movie moment can be. I adored the sequence and hated myself for doing so the next day.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Check your brain at the door, drink in the images and sounds, and enjoy the best party of the summer with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Yes, I laughed, I sang, I danced, I cried, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Much.

Postcript …

There were four lines in the film that I jotted down as potential review titles. They are indicative of why this film is such simplistic, absurdist genius in our meme-happy culture. I chose one – spoken by Julie Walters (I think) – which seemed to perfectly reflect the position this sequel takes in relation to its most vocal critics: “It’s called karma, and it’s spelled ‘ha’!” For the curious? The other three options were as follows: “Be still my beating vagina.” “It’s not easy being a mother. If it was, fathers would do it.” AND “I judge a person’s heart by the way they treat animals.” Go see the film, have a ball, and tell me if I chose my title … poorly.

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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.

 

 

Of freak flags and time warps: The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show

Originally published by EncoreMichigan.com

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show is a bit of an artifact of its time, when queer culture and camp were avant garde, subversive, and downright frightening to most of America. Mike Pence notwithstanding, today we’ve seen such a mainstreaming of O’Brien’s core shock tactics (gender fluidity, B-movie tropes taken to their kinkiest extremes, gay panic, sophomoric raunch) that the show almost seems like a cuddly, family-friendly enterprise. I guess we can thank Andy Warhol, John Waters, Madonna, RuPaul, Logo TV, and Sacha Baron Cohen for that? When Drag Race – the likeliest heir to Rocky Horror’s legacy – is one of the most popular reality shows in America, you know we’ve turned a corner, even if the daily headlines, Fox News, and the comments section of any given Yahoo! news story lead us to believe otherwise. Hell, Fox themselves aired a (not very good) TV remake of Rocky Horror starring trans actress/activist Laverne Cox  … in response to Carrie Underwood playing Maria in NBC’s Sound of Music Live!?! Strange days indeed.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

Ferndale, Michigan’s The Ringwald gets all of this. This milieu is their stock-in-trade. In fact, I can practically feel their collective eyeballs roll as they read that opening paragraph. Consequently, it is assured that Ringwald will do something unique with the material, while honoring the nostalgia factor that keeps Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials alike coming back year-after-year to this show and its classic film adaptation. The film, of course, starred Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Susan Sarandon in career-launching roles with a million toast-strewn midnight-movie showings.

 

[Wallace, Harris, Gagnon, Jacokes – image by author]

Directed with aplomb by Brandy Joe Plambeck (also brilliantly pulling out all the stops as exposition- spouting character Dr. Scott), The Ringwald’s Rock Horror Show does not disappoint. Tied loosely to the bicentennial anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (I wondered why everyone was doing these kinds of shows in the middle of summer – well, I’m seeing this one), The Ringwald’s production is a damn party. Yes, O’Brien’s book reads like a series of MadLibs pages strung together and makes about as much sense. However, the songs are sublime, and they are beautifully delivered here – kudos to Jeremy St. Martin’s music direction. The bonkers characters are a scream for talented actors like Ringwald’s to play. No bit of scenery remains unchewed; no audience member unaccosted. And it’s divine.

 

Defying convention, Plambeck transplants the show from a rambling gothic castle into a seedy biker bar, covered in punk rock graffiti and serving (non-alcoholic) drinks to audience and cast members – with smart, solid, economic scenic design from Stephen Carpenter. It’s a genius and immersive move. Squeaky clean (or are they?) Brad and Janet – representing the dreams and aspirations of middle-America to live boring, Instagram-friendly lives – stumble into said bar from the rain to use the pay phone after their car dies. While there, Brad and Janet meet a sordid cast of characters, all of whom are easy-to-judge but hard-to-avoid and totally at home in this setting. What Plambeck’s approach loses in outright spooky weirdness, it makes up for in sheer Muppet-y anarchic charm.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

The bar is run by one Dr. Frank N. Furter who uses sex as a weapon AND a floor show. In a welcome bit of gender-blind casting, Suzan M. Jacokes takes on the role. Her acting style seems pneumatically engineered for an outsized, cartoonish part like this, and she doesn’t disappoint. While nuance may not be her forte, she has power, polish, volume, and command to spare. You can’t look away. I did miss some of the slithering insinuation we typically associate with the role, but Tim Curry’s gonzo performance will always cast a long shadow. Jacokes deserves plaudits for stomping it to the ground and making it uniquely her own. She’s like the caffeine-addled lovechild of Gloria Swanson and Rodney Dangerfield. She nails the anthemic “I’m Coming Home” number, with just the right hint of Liza/Judy-ish “little girl (boy?) lost” pathos.

 

[Wallace, Gagnon – image by author]

Matthew Wallace and Jordan Gagnon as Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, respectively, are an absolute delight, setting aside the faux innocence often brought to the roles and bringing a postmodern loopy assuredness that is fun to watch. Their love/hate dynamic in “Dammit Janet” and later “Super Heroes” is touching, thoughtful, and refreshingly believable, particularly in the midst of such a carnival-esque enterprise. Their characters benefit best from the updated locale. The hedonism of a late-night, dead-end watering hole on a stormy night (and with no vehicular escape) would indeed lead to some relationship topsy-turviness.

 

Brad and Janet arrive smack in the midst of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s experiments (in a bar?) to genetically engineer the perfect man and sexual plaything “Rocky.” Garett Michael Harris as Rocky turns in an eye-poppingly nimble performance that is more Iggy Pop than Tab Hunter. He’s terrific.

 

[Riedel, Bailey, Sulkey – image by author]

Janet takes up with Rocky; Frank takes up with Brad (and Janet). Brad and Janet’s former science professor Dr. Scott arrives in a wheelchair (and glittering pumps) to drop a whole sh*t-ton of backstory. Frank reveals that he and his fellow bar denizens are actually space aliens (!) who left their mission behind to get freaky with earthlings. Servants Riff Raff (effectively underplayed by Donny Riedel) and Magenta (Dyan Bailey – imbuing Magenta’s “over it” personality with her trademark Kathleen Turner-esque a$$-kickery) shoot up the bar with ray guns and demand a return to their home planet. Brad and Janet escape, sweetly acknowledging their love and their need for one another. Finis. Whew.

 

The ensemble work (Colleen Bielman, Ryan Kayla, Peggy Lee, Rebecca S. Mickle as “The Fantoms”) is exceptional, and the group numbers (“Time Warp,” “Floor Show”) really pop in The Ringwald’s tiny space. Efficient and effective choreography is provided by Molly Zaleski. Articulation in the group numbers sometimes gets muddled, but most of the audience knows these songs backwards and forwards so that can be forgiven. Austin Sulkey makes a fabulously exasperated/exasperating Columbia, whose love of delivery boy Eddie (a swaggering RJ Cach) ends in tragedy. Costuming on both Columbia and Eddie is great as they look like they just stepped off Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” video. Vince Kelley has done remarkable sartorial work here across the board, tying the updated setting’s aesthetic with the imagery we are accustomed to seeing in this show. Clever stuff.

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Peggy Lee (no, not that Peggy Lee) deserves a special shout out for her work as “Fantom Flo.” She hauntingly delivers the show’s opening and closing numbers (“Science Fiction Double Feature” and its reprise). Her voice is exquisite – clear and crisp and evocative.

Lee also embraces “biker chic” better than anyone else in the cast, save ursine narrator David Schoen, who greets every audience member at the door, brings you to your seat, may pull you up on stage, and is completely “Hell’s Angel” intimidating in a totally adorable way.

 

This is a production put together by people who clearly love this show. The stage manager Holly Garverick shouts out all of the expected audience participation lines from the back of the house, encouraging the audience to interact with the proceedings, a la those midnight movie house showings throughout the 70s and 80s. One thought: let’s all retire yelling “slut” whenever Janet’s name is mentioned onstage. It may be tradition, but, in these “I’m With Her”/#MeToo days, it feels all kinds of misogynistic wrong.

 

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Audience members are encouraged to purchase (for a nominal fee) a bag of props (playing cards, rubber gloves, party hats, bells, glow sticks, newspapers, kazoos, “Time Warp” dance instructions) to use at key moments during the show. Garverick may want to help with that a bit, as well, as the opening night audience didn’t seem terribly keen on using any of those goodies, save the newspapers.

 

On August 4, The Ringwald will perform the show in a special midnight performance, again to evoke those high school years when people convinced their parents it would be ok for them to go take in a showing at the witching hour.

 

[Riedel – image source: The Ringwald]

Why has Rocky Horror been such a success all these years? I often wonder. However, The Ringwald’s production reminds us that, while the show may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning material, it champions underdogs and misfits, encourages all of us to let our freak flags fly, and envisions a world where inclusion of any and all is the ideal … in one really weird package. That is why. And that message is more important than ever before. Vive la difference.

 

The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show runs until August 6. For tickets, go to http://www.theringwald.com

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Lauren Crocker and Roy Boy

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.

“He puts the ‘hell’ in ‘hello.” The Barn Theatre’s production of Bonnie and Clyde the Musical

Melissa Cotton Hunter and Jonnie Carpathios [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

In a time when vanity rules the day, socioeconomic disparity drives a culture war of epic proportions, and shallow aspirations of celebrity glitz and glamor are seemingly the sole requirements to seek (and win) public office, Frank Wildhorn’s Bonnie & Clyde the Musical (running July 3-15) is an inspired choice for the 72nd season of Augusta, Michigan’s summer stock venue The Barn Theatre.

Earlier this season, The Barn performed another Wildhorn piece – Civil War – with comparable commentary on the corrosive myth-making and partisanship that tears at the heart of our nation. Who knew Wildhorn could be so deep?

I suspect there’s a reason we don’t see Jekyll & Hyde on the Barn’s slate this season.

That said, like any Wildhorn show, the treatment of history tends toward the romantic (or the superficial … depending on your point of view). Regarding Wildhorn, while the man only writes the music, he sure gets blamed for a lot of the structural flaws in his shows. Strange thing that, and I’m just as guilty as any other critic, so here goes … Sondheim, he ain’t. Bonnie & Clyde overlays the tale of the notorious bank robbers with a kind of misunderstood outlaw prince/princess narrative that is less Natural Born Killers, more Lifetime TV. In less capable hands, that approach can be maddening, especially with so much subtext to mine about the always twisted nature of fame (and infamy) in America.

Jonnie Carpathios [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Fortunately, this is The Barn, so the production is about as pitch perfect as can be.

Directed with lean efficiency and maximum style by Brendan Ragotzy, the show moves at a brisk pace, representing its bleak Depression-era Dust Bowl Texas setting through a series a rough-hewn-boarded flats and saturated-color lighting cues. Samantha Snow (scenic designer), Mike McShane (lighting designer), and Lauren Alexandria (costume designer) all deserve a bow for their evocative, economical work transporting the audience to another haunted/haunting place in time. Shout out to Michael Wilson Morgan for his clever and agile coupe car design that allows the fugitives’ roadster to become (as it should) an iconic character unto itself and not just expensive theatrical window dressing.

Jonnie Carpathios and Melissa Cotton Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Opening night had a few not-unexpected technical bumps – dodgy spotlight here, slow-moving flat there, and a muffled mic or two. With the exceptional vocal talents in this cast, it’s a bit disheartening when the leads sound as though they are singing through a thin layer of gauze or when one has to strain to hear dialogue as amplification is only used during musical numbers. It’s a minor complaint and perhaps exacerbated by the fact that I was sitting in the back of the house atop rumbling AC units and under the lighting loft. Plus, my ears ain’t what they used to be either. C’est la vie.

The cast? Is to die for. No pun intended, given – spoiler alert – the ill-fated fate of our titular larcenous lovebirds. Barn mainstays Melissa Cotton Hunter and Jonnie Carpathios knock it out of the park as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow respectively. Hunter and Carpathios wisely eschew actorly vanity to get to the heart of their characters’ vanity. Any onstage preening and prancing (and there is plenty of it) comes with healthy portions of heartbreak and insecurity as well. It is a testament to these performers that, while the audience may relish the toe-tapping tune-filled adventure, we never lose sight of the tragic consequences that familial rejection and economic marginalization have had on these desperate creatures.

Melissa Cotton Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

The show opens with the number “Picture Show” in which the duo proclaim their aspirations to become as “celebrated” as Clara Bow and Al Capone (!). If you give these kids an iPhone and a selfie-filled Instagram account and swap out Bow for Kim Kardashian and Capone for, dare I say, Donald Trump, the poignant ditty could be about any number of lost souls today, fighting uphill battles against an economy and a culture they believe to be stacked against them.

Let me add that Hunter’s and Carpathios’ performances are subtle. The show is no polemic, so don’t be deterred by my more politicized observations. Hunter and Carpathios are talented actors mature enough to draw upon their contemporary influences without derailing the escapist joy of watching two beautiful, young exiles upend a system that rejected them from the outset.

Aiding and abetting (quite literally) our anti-heroes are Clyde’s brother Buck (Derek Gulley) and Buck’s wife Blanche (Samantha Rickard). Gulley and Rickard also turn in nuanced performances, wisely avoiding the pitfalls and pratfalls of second banana comic relief. Rickard especially does a fine job conveying Blanche’s tortured soul, yearning for a calm and stable family life but tragically loyal to a husband inexorably pulled to a life of crime. Her performance is a bit Eve Arden, a smidge Carrie Fisher, and a touch Sally Field …  and that combination works quite effectively.

Describing her brother-in-law Clyde, Blanche deadpans, “He puts the ‘hell’ in ‘hello.'” In lesser hands, that line would hit the audience over the head with a “laugh now!” anvil, but Rickard’s rueful, ever-so-slightly envious delivery offers wit and insight and character definition in one tidy morsel. Blanche’s opening number “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” is a musical highlight, set in a beauty salon, with a sharp-as-tacks “Greek chorus” all-in-curlers, commenting on the unexpected joys and freedoms that result from having incarcerated husbands.

Samantha Rickard and Derek Gulley [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

The conscious theatricality of Bonnie & Clyde reaches its apex in two numbers – “God’s Arms Are Always Open” and “Made In America” – performed with gusto by Hunter’s real-life husband Patrick as a preacher whose commentary on the false promises of organized religion and government crystallize how society has failed Bonnie and Clyde.

Patrick Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Miguel Ragel Wilson deserves special recognition for his touching and winsome portrayal of Ted Hinton, caught between his unrequited lifelong adoration of Bonnie and his career as a deputy-cum-sheriff pursuing her as she and Clyde continue to terrorize Texas. Wilson has a remarkable singing voice – clear, well-articulated, powerful, distinctive (check him out in the third “Bar Show” clip below, singing Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”). He pairs that impressive vocalization with a lean physicality and personality that evokes a mix of young Anthony Perkins, Sam Waterston, and Ray Bolger. He is one to watch.

“The Bar Show”

As always, The Barn offers an immersive experience. Grab a drink or snack at the Rehearsal Shed before or during the show, and you will see performers from the ensemble, in costume, slinging drinks and making small talk. It’s absolutely charming and never unprofessional.

Following the performances, the ensemble and apprentices take over the Shed and put on a free-wheeling and saucy cabaret – “The Bar Show” – all while still serving drinks and providing exceptional customer service. What remarkable training this experience must be for any profession they choose to pursue later in life, artistic or otherwise.

This time around in the Shed, you’ll hear some Patsy Cline, some Eurythmics, some Ricky Martin (with “breathtaking” choreography), some Marty Robbins, some Zorba, and maybe a commercial jingle or two. Do yourself a favor, and stick around after Bonnie & Clyde and take in the cabaret. It is not only worthwhile and entertaining, but gives you such an appreciation for how much work goes into a summer spent at The Barn.

Don’t miss Bonnie & Clyde. Yes, it’s a fun show with a great score, but the production at The Barn makes it an essential one, offering provocative perspective on today’s fraught and exhausting, quintessentially American experience. I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate Independence Day.

Bonnie & Clyde the Musical hereruns July 3-15 at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan. Tickets can be purchased .

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Jamey Grisham, Marin Heinritz, Roy Sexton, John Mola – happy audience members following the performance

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.

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.