“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.

“When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” The Greatest Showman

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This may seem a quaint notion, but sometimes it’s nice to have a movie that is simply affirming and joyous and a celebration of what can be best in the human spirit. That is The Greatest Showman‘s raison d’etre. The subject of PT Barnum‘s now-controversial life may seem an unlikely vehicle for such a film, but that is indeed what we have with Hugh Jackman‘s latest. I absolutely loved this movie.

With music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, composers of La La Land and the recent Christmas Story Live!, the film will never be accused of being high-art, but then that is not what Barnum‘s stock-in-trade was either. With our present distaste for circuses and with the revisionist history that sees Barnum as less of an inclusive and big-hearted entrepreneur and more of an unethical and selfish opportunist, viewers are best-served to check those preconceptions at the door and approach the film as if Barnum is a mythological figure from American folklore, a la Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Barnum (Jackman) chides a theatre critic who has no use for the ringmaster’s brand of populist entertainment, “A theatre critic who can’t find joy in the theatre. Now, who’s a fraud?” It seems to be as much a definition of Barnum’s artistic philosophy as a caution to Twitter trolls in the audience ready to hate on The Greatest Showman‘s gee willkers approach to American cultural history.

Helmed by first-time director Michael Gracey (who had a reported assist from Logan‘s James Mangold) and with a screenplay written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Beauty and the Beast), the film offers a cursory look at the significant and recognizable moments in Barnum’s life, like story beats in an oft-told fable … with a heaping helping of Horatio Alger-ism: we Americans can be whoever and whatever we want to be, regardless how checkered our pasts (hell, just look at the White House and Capitol Hill).

This is not a detailed, cynical, warts-and-all biopic but rather a heartfelt and inspirational allegory (bordering on the twinkling best of Hallmark Hall-of-Fame‘s legendary output) that material success cannot substitute for authentic love. And that is just fine.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hugh Jackman is totally in his element, throwback as he is to a Hollywood of another era where corny was not only king but was embraced and celebrated by the masses. It is a refreshingly positive (albeit whitewashed) take on a legendary American captain of industry – the kind of story-telling that was prevalent in 1950s Tinseltown technicolor fantasias … or that librarians used to read aloud to us third-graders in our elementary school reading circles.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, The Greatest Showman is smart enough to supercharge the proceedings with a percussive, propulsive, almost martial, contemporary pop score to hook a generation of audiences weaned on High School Musical or Glee.

This simplistic approach with its anachronistic score is surprisingly effective, at times both insidiously engaging and pleasantly disarming. Highlights include rousing opener “The Greatest Show,” no-business-like-show-business anthem “Come Alive,” bromantic stomp-duet “The Other Side,” swoony/lurchy ballad “Rewrite the Stars,” and rafter-rattling curtain call “From Now On.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The bones of the story are not dissimilar to those of Barnum!, the 1980 Cy Coleman Broadway stage musical starring Jim Dale and Glenn Close, but the proceedings couldn’t be more fresh or modern. Disney Channel alumni Zendaya and Zac Efron deliver lovely paper doll turns in this 21st century panto-play. Michelle Williams is luminous, simultaneously distant and winsome – arm candy with an iron will – as Barnum‘s stoic wife Charity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is rounded out with a strong team of stage alumni who relish every moment of this big-screen cartoon. Kealla Settle as Lettie Lutz, the “bearded lady,” is one to watch. Her mid-movie barnstormer “This is Me” brings down the house with a can-you-hear-the-people-sing intensity that should leave you exhausted and enraged and damned “woke” … if you have any heart at all.

The filmmakers (tom) thumb their noses at depth, knowing that the best celebration of Barnum’s life as a huckster purveyor of humbug would be to deliver free-wheeling holiday escapism that energizes and enthralls. Yet, embedded within the cotton candy fluff is a timely and haunting message of acceptance and understanding and compassion.

Sociopolitically, the film does continue the troubling trope of “beautiful white dude as multiculti savior.” However, it marries that message to a final act comeuppance for Barnum. Per the film, Barnum’s fatal flaw is always looking past the talent in his midst to see who else might be coming through the door, breaking the most important of hearts in his unyielding aspiration for validation from an American elite that continually rejects his kind. After a final act tragedy, Barnum’s family of freaks confronts him with this brutal truth, licking their wounds, rallying the troupe, and reminding us all that the greatest show exists with those who’ve been loyal to us all along.

It’s all quite obvious and Hollywood-shallow self-serving, but I admit I cried and cheered and stomped my feet. Sometimes the corniest message – the most heartfelt one – is the one we all need to hear again and again. As Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (in an ethereal if underdeveloped portrayal by Rebecca Ferguson) warns Barnum, “When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” Family is what you make it, true success begins at home, and there is a place at the table for us all. Amen. #thisisme

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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.

“Page-turners they were not.” Star Wars: The Last Jedi, A Christmas Story Live!, and the failure of marketing

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are few pieces of holiday entertainment about which I am more excited than the arrival of a new Star Wars flick or a live television musical event, and, yet, somehow, it took me a good week get around to watching Disney/LucasFilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and soon-to-be-Disney-corporate-stablemate FOX’s A Christmas Story Live! In part, that is because we insane monkeys (humanity writ large) feel the absurd need to cram ALL POSSIBLE JOY and festivity into the four-plus week span between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, leaving January a bleak and empty month of snow drifts and credit card bills. Consequently, the things we might put at the top of our list under any normal circumstances slide depressingly to the bottom of our “must do”s.

Yet, there was something else about both Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! … I wasn’t that excited to see either. The messaging and advertising surrounding both events couldn’t have “buried the lede” worse, and I believe that the “backlash” or audience disappointment in both is less a result of the quality of the work (both are actually excellent in wildly divergent ways) and more a result of misaligned promotional efforts.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Did you know Christmas Story Live!, brilliantly directed with military precision and classic Broadway charm by Scott Ellis and Alex Rudzinski, was a musical by Oscar-winning Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) before you started watching? We theatre geeks did, but all of the commercials promoting the three-hour event conveniently bypassed that there would be, you know, singing and dancing galore. As a result, Twitter lit up like the “dumpster fire,” which internet trolls accused the show of being, with self-righteous indignation that “childhoods were being ruined” by the introduction of “musical numbers” to such a “great classic.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s also note, for the record, that the original 1983 Christmas Story (which is a pretty perfect confection, even if it suffers from some now-tone-deaf misogyny and racism) was a flop that only found life in video store rentals and through HBO’s habit back then of running forgotten films 38 times a day. It has become beloved, but that doesn’t mean some tinkering couldn’t benefit the timeworn tale.

It’s an absolute shame that audiences didn’t embrace this new production, and I can only hope that this TV-musical finds its own cult following on YouTube or NetFlix or whatever venues now allow 8-year-olds to watch any piece of entertainment to the point of nausea. The cast for A Christmas Story Live! was sublime, from a warm and winning Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos as the parents to a crackling Jane Krakowski and Ana Gasteyer as the teacher and Mrs. Schwartz respectively. Nary a beat was missed, and even the to-be-expected line flubs (“purkey”) were handled with grace and aplomb. The role of Ralphie was split between a lovely and magically omnipresent Matthew Broderick (adult narrator Ralphie) – who mixed just the right holiday cocktail of sentiment and cynicism – and a remarkable Andy Walken (child Ralphie) – who buried all annoying “look at me” child actor tics in a star-making performance that propelled every scene with heart and raw talent. Walken is one to watch.

(By the way, broadcasters, please cut down the number of in-show commercials. You’re killing the momentum and joy of a stage-show-on-TV by shilling for Old Navy every 8 minutes.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Much like FOX’s production of Grease Live!, the camera whizzed and swooshed from interiors to back lot streetscapes to fantasy playgrounds and back again accompanied by a literal army of extras who populated each locale with verve. Standout numbers included Gasteyer’s “In the Market for a Miracle,” Rudolph’s “What a Mother Does,” Diamantopoulos’ “A Major Award,” Krakowski’s “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” and the children’s ensemble “When You’re a Wimp.” The musical expands on the original film’s notions of inclusion balanced with the bittersweet comic realities of half-remembered holiday times, giving the female characters an agency and authority lacking in the 1983 script and discovering shades of sympathy for both the bullies and the bullied on the playground and in life. (Including PSAs for folks to go out and adopt rescue dogs like those amazing canine thespians portraying the Bumpus hounds didn’t hurt either.) It’s just a shame FOX was too chicken to promote the musical honestly and directly. I triple-dog-dare the execs to rethink their approach if there is a next time, but I’m sure the suits will blame the show itself and not their mishandling of its promotion.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

My lumps of coal aren’t only reserved for FOX’s marketing team, but Disney/LucasFilm’s as well. (For those Star Wars fans who have patiently – or impatiently – read through my analysis of A Christmas Story Live!, thank you. Now go watch it, and fast forward through the commercials.) The ads for Star Wars: The Last Jedi were nigh inescapable. No shock there. Disney has pretty successfully re-established the franchise as a holiday tradition – first with 2015’s The Force Awakens, then last year’s Rogue One – and that means advertising the bejeezus out of each new film’s imminent arrival.

However, the ads for Last Jedi overplayed the “trust no spoilers, for there be amazing twists and turns here” hyperbole. We nerds who grew up anxiously awaiting the familial, Shakespearean revelations offered by each subsequent episode of the previous two trilogies walked into Last Jedi ready to gobble up a smorgasbord of “galaxy far, far away” secrets: who was Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis); who are Rey’s parents; why has Luke Skywalker withdrawn from life; how does Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) keep her armor so dang shiny; why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) such a pouty brat? The marketing for the film had us all whipped into a lather that had nothing to do with the actual film Rian Johnson gave us, and that also is a damn shame. We do get a few of these answers, but mostly Johnson challenges whether or not any of those questions should be asked in the first place.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Was the film too long by half, suffering from a meandering and episodic structure that seemed more suited to the small screen than the large? Perhaps. Did Johnson riff on The Empire Strikes Back‘s structure in a similarly derivative way to J.J. Abram’s lifting passages wholesale from A New Hope for Force Awakens. Kinda. Was it disappointing that Johnson basically thumbed his nose at our expectations for the same regurgitated Joseph Campbell hero-quest stuff that has fueled every Star Wars movie to date?  Damn straight. And rather exhilarating as well. Like cold water in one’s face on a mid-December evening.

I admit I was bored silly at times, and I nervously giggled at some (perhaps intentional) Spaceballs-esque series-self-satire. (Could that New Order/Resistance three hour-long-slow-ass chase through space be any weirder?). However, I also appreciated that – yes, not unlike A Christmas Story Live! – Johnson mines and reinvents the source material, jettisoning the self-satisfied reverence holding it back and embracing the core essence of what hippie Baby Boomer filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg and Henson were trying to achieve with their 70s and 80s cinematic fantasias. Lucas always came this close to feminism and to embracing diversity in his films, but always fell short, leaving us with the same white male space-knights-in-shining-armor we’ve always had. Johnson, with Last Jedi, gives us a Star Wars allegory rich with thorny and difficult implications for modern-day America.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

An “evil empire” propping up and propped up by the one-percent (note: I hated the “casino planet” sequence in Last Jedi, until I realized how truly subversive it is) aims to squash the “spark” of individuality across the galaxy. They are challenged at every turn in Last Jedi by a rag-tag band of characters who wouldn’t be out of place among the human cast of Sesame Street … or a Benetton ad: a feisty female mechanic (Kelly Marie Tran) who isn’t going to suffer any fools gladly; an “I’m-With-Her” battle-scarred princess-cum-general (Carrie Fisher) who leads with wit not super-powers; a purple-haired-don’t-nobody-mansplain-to-me admiral (Laura Dern) who carries her own agenda with no apologies; a fighter pilot (Oscar Isaac) who gets his impulsive swagger handed back in shreds by Fisher and Dern and likes it; a former Stormtrooper (John Boyega) who finally learns that love not self-aggrandizing-self-sacrifice is true heroism; and a nascent Jedi who learns that the lessons she needed were in her own heart all along (Daisy Ridley).

The cast, for the most part, is great, saddled with a talky script that fails to match the pure swashbuckling-zip of previous films in the series. Blasphemous as it may sound, I wasn’t  particularly taken with Fisher’s performance, which appeared to run the gamut from sort-of-exhausted to “I’m so tired of this sh*t.” Mark Hamill, on the other hand, delivers a career-best turn as a defeated and curmudgeonly Luke Skywalker for whom life has been crueler and less rewarding than the once optimistic farm boy had ever anticipated. Hamill is no Sir Alec Guinness (by a long shot). Yet, it is interesting and a tad surreal to see Hamill now playing the cranky Jedi mentor to a young whippersnapper (Ridley) at roughly the same age Guinness was when he appeared in a similar role (Obi Wan Kenobi) in A New Hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I exited the theatre from The Last Jedi disappointed and ambivalent. However, as I reflected the next day, I realized I was doing a disservice to the film Rian Johnson made because it didn’t align with the film I expected. I daresay it deserves a second viewing, on its own merits and divorced from its own discombobulated marketing campaign.

As one character (who shall remain a surprise for those who haven’t seen Last Jedi) wryly observes about a stack of old Jedi training manuals, “Page-turners they were not.” Both The Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! are more thoughtful and challenging than the easy and comfortable “page-turner”  nostalgia pitched in their respective marketing campaigns. I hope they both get their due.

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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). 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

“Boy Bands who dance make more money.” 98 Degrees’ “Let It Snow” concert at Detroit’s Sound Board – PLUS, The Barn Christmas Cabaret, Blaine Fowler, and Christmas Story Live!

98 degrees 2

“Boy Bands who dance make more money,” 98 Degrees’ Nick Lachey observed wryly during a pre-show Q&A at Detroit’s Sound Board in the Motor City Casino on Sunday, December 16. The band was in town with their holiday music tour At Christmas, supporting their recent album Let It Snow. This is their second volume of Christmas tunes, the first being 1999’s This Christmas.

Nick’s answer followed a question about what the 40-somethings (Nick Lachey, his brother Drew Lachey, Jeff Timmons, and Justin Jeffre) would say if they could talk to their younger selves 20 years ago during the band’s seminal days. The other band member answered variations of “just enjoy this, don’t worry so much, and have fun.” Nick’s answer got the biggest laughs for candor and practicality. He surmised, if only he’d allowed himself to be choreographed more or dangle from a trapeze or do back flips, he’d have Justin Timberlake’s career. (Ironic, since his brother Drew was an early winner on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars.)

It was this very inclusive humility that made the boys-to-middle-aged-men so endearing Sunday night. At the mid-point in most pop music careers, there seem to be three doors from which to choose: 1) recycle your own hits before smaller-and-smaller venues; 2) start cranking out “standards collections” (do we really need any more covers of “Someone to Watch Over Me”?); 3) grab a particular holiday and ride the wheels off it (thank you, Perry Como). 98 Degrees have wisely chosen the last option which suits their bromantic ski-lodge cocoa-sipping aesthetic very nicely.

We wisely chose the “VIP upgrade” Sunday night which afforded us a sound check performance, the aforementioned Q&A, a photo op meet-and-greet, and a thoughtfully arrayed “swag bag” (autographed poster, ornament, etc.). I would recommend that to anyone seeing them live. Behind-the-scenes (as well as onstage) they were self-effacing, gracious, and altogether charming. I suspect this hard-earned humility came from years of living in- and out-side the spotlight, both as a vocal group that was generally and unfairly overshadowed by Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC and as solo reality television stars (chagrined George Burns-esque hubby Nick, gold-plated hoofer Drew, and Magic Mike-ish Svengali Jeff) and occasional politicians (thank you, progressive Justin).

As for the show? It’s pretty exceptional. The winsomeness on display informally is manifest in a stage presence that is professional and rehearsed, inclusive and loose and confidently casual, with nary a hint of swagger, and with an authentic appreciation for the fact that people in the audience are still willing to shell out some cash at the holidays to see these Cincinnati kids sing and (sort of) dance. (This is actually our third time seeing them live – once in 2000, and during their first reunion tour in 2013.)

Backed by a strong rhythm section, keyboards, and backing vocalists, 98 Degrees breeze through two hours of holiday music and greatest hits, including a daffy and endearing Disney medley that includes their Stevie Wonder duet from Mulan “True to Your Heart” as well as a take on “Let It Go” (Frozen) that only proud, lightly woke Gen X fathers-of-young-daughters could perform and a breathtaking “Circle of Life” from The Lion King.

“Little Drummer Boy” gets a much needed beat-box refresh; Joni Mitchell’s “River” becomes a sonorous but no less poignant pop anthem; “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (which we learned was their Motown Records audition song twenty years ago) is given new life as a creamy and rich a cappella number; and their own hit “Una Noche” gets a fizzy infusion of “Feliz Navidad.”

I’m not a fan of holiday music. I think it’s all been run into the ground, and any time a new carol comes along, department store Muzak and pop radio eviscerate its novelty within mere minutes of its arrival. Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed hearing “Mary, Did You Know?” or “Run Rudolph Run” sincerely delivered by capable vocalists taking the music but not themselves too seriously.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. If these boys dedicate their remaining swoon-worthy days to a career of cardigans and holiday doo wop, I’ll gladly follow along. And that is totally unlike me, so well done, lads, well done.

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While I’m recommending holiday (and other) entertainment …

We saw the Barn Theatre’s holiday cabaret during its opening weekend and really enjoyed it. Maybe I’m not such a Grinch after all. From talented critic and pal Marin Heinritz –  “It all feels like an intimate family affair — the way we perhaps imagine the holidays to be in our dreams, where everyone is beautiful and happy and talented and welcome; and folks full of love and cheer get together to make merry and shine bright in honor of something much larger than us.” Read her review here.

And my buddy Blaine Fowler, host of the daily Blaine Fowler Morning Show, released a great album 49783 on iTunes and Amazon about a month or so ago in time for his birthday. I’ve been listening to it for awhile, and as I mentioned to him in a text, “Loving it! I’m hearing the influences of Led Zeppelin, Stewart Copeland of the Police, Corey Hart, Rush, a little Maroon 5, Bryan Adams, and The Kinks. Yet, uniquely your own. Production is polished where it should be and rough hewn and funky where not. Your voice is featured nicely as well with catchy at times haunting melodies and heartfelt lyrics.” Check it out!

And because we were at the concert last night, I have not had a chance yet to watch Fox’s live broadcast of A Christmas Story: The Musical – directed by Scott Ellis (She Loves Me, Mystery of Edwin Drood), in fact, the uncle of Blaine Fowler’s cohost Lauren Crocker.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton offered her enthusiastic take: “It was excellent and clever and added some sensitive-oriented stuff. Great Busby Berkeley-type numbers. Loved all of the three main women and Matthew Broderick…clever use of him to the max. The little boy looks like Jane Krakowski but she makes a darling teacher and Maya and Ana are great. Bully boy quite interesting…little brother looks like Ned Beatty. The story being musicalized gives it true zing.” It got Susie’s seal of approval! I look forward to catching up with this one later this week on the DVR.

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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.