“I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.” My gluttonous Thanksgiving: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, Blinded by the Light, Kinky Boots, Lady & the Tramp, The Mandalorian, and Watchmen

I had a pretty gluttonous Thanksgiving. No, I don’t mean green bean casserole and pecan pie (I loathe pumpkin) and cranberry sauce and corn bread stuffing. I certainly don’t mean turkey. As Tom Hanks, thoughtfully portraying children’s TV icon Fred Rogers, observes in the surreally superlative A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, “I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.“ Me neither.

No, my holiday indulgences were of the entertainment variety, cramming in as many movies and binge watching as much television as my ever widening derrière could withstand. And, because I am fundamentally sort of lazy and because I realize now that (at times) writing this blog feels more like a penance than a reward for engaging in one of my favorite pastimes (that is, devouring pop culture), this entry is going to be more of a highlight reel of the past several days in entertainment.

It really is kind of a shame (and the luck of the draw) that I devoted 12 (!) paragraphs to Frozen 2 last week, and something as boffo and transcendent as the West End production of musical Kinky Boots (broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances) or Damon Lindelof’s continuation (via HBO) of Alan Moore’s/Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic book masterpiece Watchmen will only get a sentence or two.  I can watch this stuff or I can write about this stuff, but it’s getting too damn hard to try to do both and still enjoy it.

Be that (self-pitying moment) as it may, so much of the entertainment I will discuss below shares a common point of view. Whether ethereal drag queens or plucky Pakistani teens who idolize Bruce Springsteen, war-weary space age bounty hunters or cynical costumed vigilantes, precocious Nazi youths who come to realize Adolf Hitler is a less-than-ideal playmate or twinkly-eyed but secretly heavy-hearted kiddie show hosts, the characters who jumped off the screen in these movies and shows share a feverishly urgent demand for kindness, tolerance, justice, inclusion, and love. Timely for this holiday season … and timely for a culture in crisis. As Lola (played by that luminous and shamanistic firecracker Matt Henry) sings in Kinky Boots: “We give good epiphany.”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is exceptional, in great part because the cast – the aforementioned Hanks, Matthew Rhys as a hardened journalist determined to find the toxic truth underlying Mr. Rogers’ sunny sanctimony, and Chris Cooper as Rhys’ neglectful/neglected papa – sidestep any mawkishness inherent in the material with their honest, unadorned portrayals. More to the point, director Marielle Heller takes her cue from the source material – an Esquire cover story – turning in a film that is more clear-eyed essay than slice-of-life biopic. Everything in the movie feels as slightly left of center as any episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ever did, acknowledging the program’s twee sensibilities and refracting the show’s heightened sense of “make believe” wonder as a metaphorical context for the tiny cruelties family and friend exact on a daily, perhaps hourly basis. It’s a good movie, not quite a great one, but the comforting cinematic equivalent of a scruffy, slightly embarrassing cardigan and pair of house shoes.

Jojo Rabbit takes the Merrie Melodies lunacy of actor/director Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and applies it to the genocidal moral conflict of being a young, patriotically-obsessed citizen in WWII Nazi Germany. Hmmmm. Take The Mortal Storm, The Tin Drum, To Be Or Not To Be, Moonrise Kingdom, The Pianist, Lord of the Flies, and A Christmas Story, throw them into a blender, and have said output be directed  by a less precious, more humane Wes Anderson … after drinking three spiked Red Bulls? The resulting film would be Jojo Rabbit. (Waititi also plays the titular character’s imaginary playmate … Adolf Hitler.) The film depicts a Nazi-aspirant young boy (charismatic Roman Griffin Davis) and his less nationalistic mother (Scarlett Johansson about as charming and vibrant as I’ve ever seen her) surviving the dadaistic absurdity of a country run by race-mongering juvenile delinquents (in other words, an on-the-nose allegory for our presently fraught times). The enterprise works far better than it should, aided and abetted by a witty and whimsical supporting cast including Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. By the time this satirical picaresque meanders to its conclusion, you will be shocked a few times, horrified a few more, laughing and maybe crying uncomfortably, in part due to subject matter and in part due to dodgy artistic execution. Again, a good movie with an essential message, and one that may age into something classic as viewers discover it after its theatrical run.

Knives Out is just ok. There are far better versions of this movie and far worse, but I think I’d rather spend an afternoon with Sleuth or Murder by Death, hell, even Deathtrap before giving Knives Out another go. As Daniel Craig, playing a crispy-fried Foghorn Leghorn private detective with none of the zingy Mason-Dixon daffiness he exuded in Logan Lucky, notes regarding the reading of a family will, “Think of a community theatre production of a tax return.” That quote could describe this overeager flick as well. Writer/director Rian Johnson piles on the fake-outs and redirects, putting his breathless cast through its paces, and, while there is fun to be had, there’s just not nearly enough of it. Johnson has assembled a Whitman’s Sampler of movie star character players – Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher freaking Plummer – and they all have moments (Chris Evans and Don Johnson acquitting themselves the best here), but I left the film with itchy teeth and liking everyone involved just a little bit less. That said, I applaud Rian Johnson and company for using the populist entertainment value of this black comedy as a Trojan horse for some biting, insightful social commentary about the entitled wealthy and the festering racism in Trump’s America.

Blinded by the Light (on DVD and streaming) is directed with a sure hand by Gurinder Chadha, employing pretty much the exact same template she rode to international success with Bend It Like Beckham (which in and of itself follows the pattern of so many working class British dramedies like Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, depicting resourceful souls rising above class warfare). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Based on a true story, the film focuses on a young Pakistani man (an appealing turn by Viveik Kalra) who strives to overcome the racist nationalism (there’s that theme again!) and economic disparity of 1980s Thatcherite England and to break loose from a well-intentioned but overbearing father who can’t understand his boy’s dreams of becoming a writer. (“Where’s the money in that?!” asks this guy writing a movie blog for free.) Instead of soccer, our protagonist finds his muse in the lyricism of “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen, encouraged by a wry but loving literature teacher (a marvelous Hayley Atwell) and some beautifully drawn teenage pals (Aaron Phagura and Nell Williams). The film is as predictable as all great fables can be but is delicately executed, well-acted, and simultaneously sobering and inspiring. And, yes, this bonbon of a film seems ready-made to be musicalized.

Speaking of which … Kinky Boots, the Tony-winning musical adaptation by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein of the 2005 Brit comedy film of the same name (which starred a then-unknown Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor), was just broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances. To say the show was perfection – as perfectly kicky as the thigh-high red boots drag queen Lola (and later the entire cast) dons during the show – would be the textbook definition of understatement. This cast was the Olivier Award-winning West End crew, led by Matt Henry (my mother accurately observed … move over Shirley Bassey and Lena Horne) as the transformative Lola who storms into the life of bedraggled shoe-factory scion Charlie (a winning Killian Donnelly) and turns a small town on its collective head … for the better. The factory is days away from closing, and, by reinventing itself to serve the “niche market” of drag queen footwear, changes its fortunes … and the lives (and attitudes) of all who work there. This is no To Wong Foo magical drag queen fairy tale, however. Lola (also known as Simon) is a fully realized, poignant, exhilarating human being, complex, complicated, flawed, perfect. In Henry’s manicured hands, Lola is the heart of the show, a beautiful yin to Charlie’s shaggy yang. The stage relationship between Donnelly and Henry is deeply affecting, propelled by Lauper’s pulsing, percolating, nicely integrated score. Amy Lennox as Charlie’s co-worker, confidante, and eventual love interest Lauren is dynamite, a musical comedy crackerjack, balancing pathos and hilarity brilliantly, sometimes in a single phrase. Kinky Boots celebrates accepting who we are (and the gifts which embracing that truth can bring) with warmth, kindness, and about the best pacing I’ve seen onstage.

Lady & the Tramp (currently streaming on Disney+) is on the small screen where I reckon all of these live action remakes of Disney’s animated classics actually belong. Seriously, 20 years ago, these things would have all been very special presentations on Sunday nights on The Wonderful World of Disney in order to sell theme park tickets before landing on well-worn VHS tapes in the back seats of mini-vans everywhere. That said, this latest re-do ain’t half bad. Lady (voiced with moxie by Tessa Thompson) has an agency she never had in the animated film, and Tramp (a winsome Justin Theroux) just seems less, well, skeezy. There is an overarching effort toward inclusiveness with color-blind casting for the human roles of Jim Dear and Darling that, on one hand, is really refreshing, but on the other creates an inadvertently weirdly white-washed message about what interracial couples would have actually endured in turn-of-the-20th-century Missouri. And the problematic “Siamese Cat Song,” ear-wormy as it may have once been, is officially retired. In its place, there is a new and perfectly acceptable ditty to accompany Aunt Sarah’s prized felines’ narrative-essential shenanigans. “He’s a Tramp” is still on the playlist, but this time around is performed with sassy aplomb by Janelle Monae, in the role originated by Peggy Lee. The film is entertaining and pleasant with a timeless message about, yes, accepting our differences … not to mention the importance of responsible pet ownership.

The Mandalorian (currently streaming on Disney+) is about the best Star Wars spin-off to come from LucasFilm in the past 20-some years (if ever), in great part because it doesn’t seem very Star Wars-y. Or at least what “Star Wars-y” has come to mean since the original trilogy debuted: needlessly complicated back story; self-serious and ponderous mythologizing; overlong playing time; character development that seems driven as much by merchandisability as narrative need. The Mandalorian by comparison is a breezy pleasure, a throwback to single-protagonist vintage TV Westerns like The Virginian or The Rifleman (without any intentional swagger/machismo or inadvertent misogyny/racism), wherein our reluctant protagonist becomes the lens through which a different 37-minute parable is told each week. Oh, and there’s a really adorable Baby Yoda, who may be the cutest, funniest creature dreamed up since the Ewoks (yes, I still like Ewoks). Producer/writer Jon Favreau joyfully wears his retro influences on his sleeve (as evidenced by the minimalistic percussive soundtrack and the closing credits sequence, both of which seem channeled straight from 1968). Leading man Pedro Pascal (face forever obscured under his signature bounty hunter helmet – “this is the waaaay“) conveys so much heart, great comedic timing, and an intriguing amount of agnosticism, without benefit of one. single. facial. expression. Four episodes in, and I can’t wait to see where this one is going.

Watchmen (HBO) is so damn good. We had one of those “watch HBO for free!” weekends on Xfinity and, in a less than 24-hour period, we binged the first seven episodes, including tonight’s exemplary “An Almost Religious Awe” (every episode has a great title). I’m going to have to show up on the doorstep of some generous HBO-subscribing friend the next two Sundays to see how this thing wraps up! Any takers? The original DC comic book mini-series (1986-87) deconstructed the very notion of what a superhero was, offering a heady mix of cynicism and optimism, critical of Reagan-era excess and territorialism while satirically reinventing atomic age tropes of flying humans and hooded marvels, all to dissect the morals and ethics of those who set themselves up as our saviors. “Who watches the Watchmen?” Subsequent efforts to adapt the landmark series onscreen (no thank you, Zack Snyder) or revisit in print (just stop, Geoff Johns) have fallen flat, missing the existential trauma at the heart of the work. If you’d told my 14-year-old self that his 46-year-old future would include a triumphant, accessible yet layered, televised continuation of the storyline for a mainstream audience, I never would have believed you. In fact, it is this very question of identity and self and the ephemeral nature of time folding upon itself through memory that gives Watchmen its slippery power. The HBO series replaces the Cold War paranoia of the original comics with an incisive take on the race-baiting xenophobia currently paralyzing our country, in a way that is completely true to the original work while acknowledging how far we have (and haven’t) come as a society. Regina King and Jean Smart are (together) an acting powder keg, wrestling with thorny questions of race and gender, empowered and stonewalled and uninhibited and numb with white-hot rage. The supporting players are to a one excellent – Don Johnson (again!), Tim Blake Nelson, Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chau, Frances Fisher, Tom Mison, Sara Vickers – finding Shakespeare in the mundane and delivering a show that isn’t afraid to explore big ideas amongst daily tragedies. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a character unto itself – disco for a dark age, as if Phillip Glass found his groove. I have no idea where this show is going, and I can’t wait to get there … and I really don’t want it to end.

Postscript …

So as gluttony goes, I don’t think I’ll apologize for this indulgence of the mind as my brain is truly spinning with possibility, heading back into a work week, knowing that there are ideas bigger than ourselves as all ideas should be.

“The endless story of expectations wiring inside my mind/Wore me down/I came to a realization and I found a way to turn it around/To see/That I could just be me.”

– “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots

“We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”

Alan Moore, Watchmen

That successful effort certainly shines forth as the highlight of my high school days. “Bye Bye Birdie” in Columbia City

So proud of my mom! “That successful effort certainly shines forth as the highlight of my high school days.” – Susie Sexton, who played Rose in “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1964, the first musical performed in Columbia City High School’s Newell Rice Auditorium. 55 years later, Columbia City High School brings “Bye Bye Birdie” back to the CCHS stage this November as the farewell musical for the current building. Opens tomorrow night! https://www.thepostandmail.com/content/musical-pays-tribute-first-performed-cchs-stage

https://www.thepostandmail.com/content/musical-pays-tribute-first-performed-cchs-stage

“With the combined efforts of musicians, dancers, drama enthusiasts, stage managers and light-ing technicians, the Senior Class of 1964 presented Columbia City’s first musical comedy, Bye Bye Birdie,” reads the article from the Columbian, the 1964 yearbook of Columbia City Joint High School.

Be prepared to put on a happy face as, 55 years later, Columbia City High School brings “Bye Bye Birdie” back to the CCHS stage this November as the farewell musical for the current building. A cast of more than 35 students will act, sing and dance their hearts out for audiences on Friday, Nov. 15 and Saturday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. in the Newell Rice Auditorium

With Director Shane Barkley

Set in the late 1950’s, “Bye Bye Birdie” is a romantic musical comedy revolving around the incredible popularity of Conrad Birdie (Ray Barrand), an Elvis-like rock & roll star who’s being drafted into the Army, which puts his publicity agent and songwriter Albert Peterson (Jack Claypool) into something of a pickle. Peterson’s sweetheart, Rosie (Sidney Basham), comes up with a last-ditch nationwide publicity scheme to get Conrad on to the Ed Sullivan Show and plant a lucky last kiss on a teenage fan before heading off overseas. When Kim MacAfee (Ella Kirchner) of Sweet Apple, Ohio wins the honor, all the telephones in her small town ring off the hook, and the entire town reels with anticipation. Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo (Daniel Booker), can’t take the humiliation of his lady love’s televised lip-lock. Rose can’t take another minute of Albert’s distracted ways. And Sweet Apple can’t take its teens’ riotous rebellion, inspired by the arrival of bad-boy Birdie. Will Sweet Apple ever be the same?

Pulp Ann Arbor reviews Theatre Nova’s Follies in Concert

Well, this is about the nicest review anyone (who isn’t my mother) has ever written about anything I’ve done on stage. “Roy Sexton is outstanding as Buddy. He has some of the most complex songs exploring the most complex emotions. His takes on ‘The Right Girl’ and ‘Buddy’s Blues’ are vocally strong and emotionally engaging as he conjures up a dialogue with his girlfriend while still yearning for the love of his wife.” Read more: https://pulp.aadl.org/node/399787. Theatre Nova’s Follies in Concert runs ONE more weekend, starting Thursday: http://www.theatrenova.org

Photo by Sean Carter

“Follies” continues Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 14-16, at 8 pm and Nov. 17 at 2 pm. Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor. For tickets, call 734-635-8450 or go to theatreNOVA.org.

Love this! Just discovered that my mom Susie Sexton’s Honors Thesis from her time at Ball State University is available to read from their library site. Check out #HenrikIbsen: “An Enemy of the People” here: http://cardinalscholar.bsu.edu/bitstream/handle/handle/190162/D86_1968DuncanSusanE.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

I sure do love these sweet kids – thank you, Nikki Bagdady Horn, Colleen McConnell Fowler, Blaine D. Fowler, and Lauren Crocker, for being such wonderful and supportive friends. Really grateful for you! Fun Friday at #Follies!

EncoreMichigan reviews Follies in Concert

Well, all right! Review from EncoreMichigan.com … excerpt:

Follies’ premise – aged alumni of the Weisman (think Ziegfeld) Follies reunite at their derelict theatre to relive their youth and ponder their life choices just before the place is leveled for a parking lot – is challenging to stage for any theater because of the intermingling of time, but Theatre Nova carries it off. …

Dramatic highlights of this show are “Losing My Mind,” a solo performed by Sue Booth, as Sally, and “Live, Laugh, Love” by Thomas Murphy, as Ben, and the ensemble.

Comic highlights are the rollicking “Buddy’s Blues” by Roy Sexton as the sad sack traveling salesman Buddy Plummer, and “I’m Still Here,” performed by Olive Hayden-Moore as Follies veteran Carlotta.

Diane Hill, who directs the play and co-stars as Phyllis Rogers Stone, also performs two of Follies’ funniest songs, “Could I Leave You” and “Lucy and Jessie” with spot-on comic timing.

Follies’ famous mirror number, “Who’s That Woman,” is given nice treatment by Carrie Jay Sayer, as showgirl Stella.

The most effective time-splicing number in the show is probably “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs.”

Eddie Rothermel, Kryssy Becker, Connor Thomas Rhoades, and Annie Kordas do a fine job of portraying Ben and Phyllis, Buddy and Sally in their younger years.

Read the full review here: https://www.encoremichigan.com/2019/11/theatre-nova-tees-up-follies-for-fund-raiser/

Theatre NOVA presents “Follies in Concert”

Theatre NOVA presents “Follies in Concert”
book by James Goldman,
music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Nov. 7 – 17, 2019

 (L to R): Sue Booth, Diane Hill, Thomas Murphy, and Roy Sexton in “Follies in Concert” book by James Goldman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Diane Hill, with music direction by Brian E. Buckner at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Sean Carter Photography.


ANN ARBOR, MI (Oct. 8, 2019) – Theatre NOVA, Ann Arbor’s professional theatre with an exclusive focus on new plays and playwrights, presents a limited engagement of  “Follies in Concert” book by James Goldman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim’s Broadway smash-hit musical concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies” that played in that theatre between the World Wars. Presented in concert, Follies is a glamorous and fascinating peek into a bygone era, and a clear-eyed look at the transformation of relationships over time, with countless songs that have become standards, including “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings”, “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind.”

 (L to R): Sue Booth, Diane Hill, Annie Kordas, Kryssy Becker, Eddie Rothermel, Connor Thomas Rhoades, Thomas Murphy, and Roy Sexton in “Follies in Concert” book by James Goldman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Diane Hill, with music direction by Brian E. Buckner at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Sean Carter Photography.

Directed by Diane Hill, with Music Direction by Brian E. Buckner, “Follies in Concert” features Sue Booth, Thomas Murphy, Diane Hill, Roy Sexton, Annie Kordas, Kryssy Becker, Eddie Rothermel, Connor Rhoades, Harold Jurkiewicz, Olive Hayden-Moore, Carrie Jay Sayer, Emily Rogers-Driskill, Gayle Martin, and Edith Lewis. The production and design team includes Monica Spencer (scenic design), Jeff Alder (lighting design), and Briana O’Neal (stage manager).

“Follies in Concert” will run for two weeks only, Nov. 7 through Nov. 17, 2019, at Theatre NOVA (410 W. Huron, Ann Arbor), a downtown performance space. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 2:00 p.m. Theatre NOVA features free parking for patrons, as well as quick access to the city’s restaurants, bars, bakeries, and coffee shops.

 (L to R): Emily Rogers-Driskill, Gayle Martin, Olive Hayden-Moore, Carrie Jay Sayer, and Edith Lewis in “Follies in Concert” book by James Goldman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Diane Hill, with music direction by Brian E. Buckner at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Sean Carter Photography.

Tickets are $30 for this limited engagement fundraiser for Theatre NOVA. For tickets, visit TheatreNOVA.org, call 734-635-8450 or buy them in person at the box office one hour before showtime.

Theatre NOVA is Ann Arbor’s resident professional theatre company. Its mission is to raise awareness of the value and excitement of new plays and playwrights and provide resources for playwrights to develop their craft by importing, exporting, and developing new work.

Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for “Saturday Night” (1954), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964), “Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “The Frogs” (1974), “Pacific Overtures” (1976), “Sweeney Todd” (1979), “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981), “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984), “Into the Woods” (1987), “Assassins” (1991), “Passion” (1994), and “Road Show” (2008). Sondheim also wrote lyrics for “West Side Story”(1957), “Gypsy”(1959), and “Do I Hear a Waltz?”(1965) and additional lyrics for “Candide” (1973). Anthologies of his work include “Side by Side by Sondheim” (1976), “Marry Me a Little” (1981), “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” (1983), “Putting it Together”(1993/99), and “Sondheim on Sondheim” (2010). He composed the scores of the films “Stavisky” (1974) and “Reds” (1981) and songs for “Dick Tracy” (1990) and the television production “Evening Primrose” (1966). His collected lyrics with attendant essays have been published in two volumes: “Finishing the Hat” (2010) and “Look, I Made A Hat” (2011). In 2010 the Broadway theater formerly known as Henry Miller’s Theatre was renamed in his honor.

 Diane Hill in “Follies in Concert” book by James Goldman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Diane Hill, with music direction by Brian E. Buckner at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Sean Carter Photography.

James Goldman was born in Chicago and graduated from the University of Chicago; he did postgraduate work at Columbia University. He has written numerous plays, including “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole” (1961; co-written with his brother, William Goldman), “They Might Be Giants” (1961) and “The Lion in Winter” (1966). In addition to “Follies” (1971), he has been the bookwriter of “A Family Affair” (1962; co-author with William Goldman, music by John Kander), the television musical “Evening Primrose” (1967, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) and “Follies” (1987, London – a re-conception of the original piece). His screenplays include “The Lion in Winter” (1968 – Academy Award; British Screenwriters Award), “They Might Be Giants” (1970), “Nicholas and Alexandra” (1971), “Robin and Marian” (1976) and “White Nights” (1985, co-writer). Goldman’s work for television has included an adaptation of “Oliver Twist” (1982), “Anna Karenina” (1985), “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna Anderson” (1986). He is also the author of a novel, “Waldorf.”

Diane Hill (director) is a Producing Artistic Director at Theatre NOVA and was founder and Artistic/Executive Director of Two Muses Theatre, a nonprofit, professional theatre in West Bloomfield. Diane was a professor at University of Detroit Mercy and Oakland Community College, where she originated and designed the Theatre degree program. She has a Ph.D. in Theatre from Wayne State University and a Bachelor of Music and Master of Arts in Theatre from the University of Michigan. She has performed at many professional theatres in southeast Michigan, including the Fisher Theatre, Meadow Brook Theatre, Masonic Temple, Michigan Opera Theatre, Detroit’s Gem Theatre, Purple Rose Theatre, Tipping Point Theatre, Encore Musical Theatre, Croswell Opera House, Open Book Theatre, The Ringwald, and Cherry County Playhouse. She was awarded a Wilde Award for her portrayal of Professor Vivian Bearing in “Wit,” a Rogue Critic’s Award for her work as Mama in “’night, Mother,” both with Breathe Art Theatre Project, and an Ann Arbor News Award for her work as Agnes in “I Do! I Do!” at Kerrytown Concert House. At Theatre NOVA, she directed “Clutter” and “Kill Move Paradise.” Theatre NOVA audiences saw her play Olympe de Gouges in “The Revolutionists” (Wilde Award Best Production), Zelda in “The How and the Why” (Wilde Award Best Actress), and Penelope Easter in “The Totalitarians.”

 Roy Sexton in “Follies in Concert” book by James Goldman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Diane Hill, with music direction by Brian E. Buckner at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Sean Carter Photography.

Brian E. Buckner (Music Director) is an active actor, pianist, composer, arranger, vocal coach, choreographer and music director based in the Ann Arbor, MI area. A versatile talent, he works comfortably in all genres and is director of music of several local ensembles including Wild Swan Theater and the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, in addition to having performed in Canada, China, and Mexico. Favorite recent productions include “Murder Ballad” (The Penny Seats Theatre Company), “The Devil’s Music” (Theatre NOVA), “Peter and the Starcatcher” (University of Michigan) and “Rock of Ages” (The Dio).  Brian composed the original music used in Theatre NOVA’s production of “Kill Move Paradise.”

### 

FACT SHEET
WHO:
Cast:
Sally Durant Plummer: Sue Booth
Benjamin Stone: Thomas Murphy
Buddy Plummer: Roy Sexton
Phyllis Rogers Stone: Diane Hill
Young Sally: Annie Kordas
Young Ben: Eddie Rothermel
Roscoe, Young Buddy: Connor Rhoades
Young Phyllis: Kryssy Becker
Dimitri Weismann, Theodore Whitman: Harold Jurkiewicz
Hattie Walker, Carlotta Campion: Olive Hayden-Moore
Emily Whitman, Heidi Schiller: Edith Lewis
Stella Deems: Carrie Jay Sayer
Young Heidi: Emily Rogers-Driskill
Solange La Fitte: Gayle Martin

Production Team:
Director: Diane Hill
Music Director: Brian E. Buckner
Set design: Monica Spencer
Lighting design: Jeff Alder
Stage Management: Briana O’Neal
WHAT:
Follies in Concert” book by James Goldman, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Theatre NOVA, 410 W. Huron, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
Box office: 734-635-8450, www.theatreNOVA.org
Tickets: $30
PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE
FOLLIES IN CONCERT
Nov. 7-17, 2019
Thurs., Nov. 7, 8:00 p.m. PREVIEW
Fri., Nov. 8, 8:00 p.m. PRESS OPENING
Sat., Nov. 9, 8:00 p.m.
Sun., Nov. 10, 2:00 p.m. – ***SOLD OUT***
Thurs., Nov. 14, 8:00 p.m.
Fri., Nov. 15, 8:00 p.m.
Sat., Nov. 16, 8:00 p.m.
Sun., Nov. 17, 2:00 p.m. 

Hello, folks, we’re into the Follies … Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova production opens this week

Thank you, BroadwayWorld! PREVIEW TONIGHT. OPENS TOMORROW. Theatre Nova presents a limited engagement of “FOLLIES IN CONCERT” book by James Goldman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

https://www.broadwayworld.com/detroit/article/FOLLIES-IN-CONCERT-Limited-Engagement-Opens-Friday-20191106

Sondheim’s Broadway smash-hit musical concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies” that played in that theatre between the World Wars. Presented in concert, Folliesis a glamorous and fascinating peek into a bygone era, and a clear-eyed look at the transformation of relationships over time, with countless songs that have become standards, including “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings”, “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind.”

Directed by Diane Hill, with music direction by Brian E. Buckner, “Follies in Concert” features Sue Booth, Thomas Murphy, Diane Hill, Roy Sexton, Annie Kordas, Kryssy Becker, Eddie Rothermel, Connor Thomas Rhoades, Harold Jurkiewicz, Olive Hayden-Moore, Carrie Jay Sayer, Emily Rogers-Driskill, G-jee Martin, and Edie Lewis. The production and design team includes Monica Spencer (scenic design), Jeff Alder (lighting design), and Briana O’Neal (stage manager).

Thursday, Friday and Saturday @ 8 p.m.
Sun. @ 2:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets!
Sunday, Nov. 10 is SOLD OUT
Special $10 off Preview Thursday, Nov. 7 at 8:00pm

Opening night ticket includes an afterglow reception with the cast and crew!

https://www.broadwayworld.com/detroit/article/FOLLIES-IN-CONCERT-Limited-Engagement-Opens-Friday-20191106

“Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you.” Madonna’s Madame X Tour in Chicago and Come From Away National Tour in Detroit

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Unhappy the land where heroes are needed.” – Galileo, in Brecht’s Life of Galileo (1943)

“The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything – gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness – rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations…. To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theatre.” – Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double (1938)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“…agitprop theatre, a highly politicized theatre that originated in 1920s Europe and spread to the United States; the plays of Bertolt Brecht are a notable example. Russian agitprop theater was noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule. Gradually the term agitprop came to describe any kind of highly politicized art.” – Wikipedia entry on “Agitprop Theatre

“Stop the world/Take a picture/Try to capture/To ensure this moment lasts/We’re still in it, but in a minute -/That’s the limit – and this present will be past.” – “Stop the World,” Come From Away

“I’m not your bitch. Don’t hang your shit on me.” – Madonna, “Human Nature” from Bedtime Stories

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s funny – not “ha ha” funny, but odd funny – that I haven’t much wanted to write anything else since seeing Joker three weeks ago. That film – and Joaquin Phoenix’ transcendent performance – took up permanent residence in my brain and refracted everything I’ve viewed since. I’m still digesting that film and its profound reflection of our fragmented society. I want to see it again (and again), but maybe it’s for the best that life has intervened and, consequently, I haven’t been able to indulge that impulse.

My co-workers and yours truly in line for Madame X

Joker makes its plea for compassion and empathy in strokes both bold and nuanced, and it leaves a bruise (on the heart). That same earnest desire to reach through and wake us from our collective self-absorption and malaise was evident in two other performances I’ve taken in recently: Come From Away‘s National Tour stop at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre and Madonna’s Madame X tour residency at the Chicago Theatre, one a decided crowd-pleaser and the other a riding crop upside the head. I’m sure you can guess which is which.

Come From Away [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Come From Away is a beautiful show, on its surface a pastoral ode to the power of human kindness, belying its sharp-eyed critique of the darker sides of human nature.

Wrapped in the aural comfort food of its Chieftains-esque score, Come From Away tells the story of 38 planes rerouted to the tiny Newfoundland town of Gander during the days following 9/11 and the joys (and tensions) of a tight-knit community faced with housing and feeding and comforting thousands of stranded, anxious, and exhausted international travelers.

Come From Away [Image Source: Wikipedia]

What is brilliant about the show, beyond its Brechtian theatricality (a dozen actors play all of the townspeople and all of the visitors, using a handful of mismatched kitchen chairs, a costume item or two, and a clutch of flawless accents), is the fact that Come From Away is not a Valentine to 9/11. This isn’t some fawning piece of jingoistic nationalism. The heartwarming positivity of seeing a plucky band of Canadians open their doors and hearts to a rather spiky bunch of displaced Americans and other nationals is not without a few bumps along the way. Irene Sankoff’s and David Hein’s remarkably integrated book and score do not shy away from the ugliness of racism, misogyny, ageism, homophobia, materialism, and the overarching fear that can eat us all alive in the face of crisis.

That said, the show blazes a bright and inspiring path in its “warts and all” philosophy, leaving us with the comforting affirmation that there are in fact angels among us who truly care about all creatures (great and small).

Madonna [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Turning to Madonna for a moment, I read a review recently that described her latest recording Madame X as a cast album in search of its show. An apt description, given what I witnessed at the Chicago Theatre last week. I, for one, am a fan of Madonna when she lets her freak flag fly and doesn’t care one whit for marketability. Her Dick Tracy-inspired album I’m Breathless is a good example (ironic since it was clearly initiated as a marketing ploy … and turned out to be anything but.) Madame X is her nuttiest collection in years, Paul Simon’s Graceland as designed by Yoko Ono, Giorgio Moroder, and Tex Avery, full of world beats, polemics, and gobsmacking u-turns.

Madonna [Image Source: Wikipedia]

As a result, the album begs for some theatrical staging, and Madonna, for the most part delivers, taking her trademark arena/stadium excess and translating for much smaller and more intimate environs like the Chicago Theatre (where she is currently in residence as part of her Madame X world tour).

For the most part, it’s a very compelling switch, but, continuing the aforementioned “cast album” comparison, if these small theatre residencies are Madame X‘s out of town tryouts, I think Madge needs to send the “book” back for some revisions.

This was NOT a deal as Madonna didn’t take the stage until 11:15 pm, concluding at nearly 2 am! She may be in cahoots with the parking industry.

When our Queen of Pop tries to be overtly political and offer “profound” declamations of individualism, she comes off like a college freshman who has just discovered Jean-Paul Sartre and James Baldwin. Madonna has never been what one would consider an exceptional comic raconteur so the show’s interminable patter between songs, ostensibly structured to create intimacy, provocation, and laughter falls exceptionally, head-scratchingly flat. When the show focuses on more of a one-world ideology, with its polyglot mixing bowl of international flavors and styles, the implied politics of love and understanding are much more impactful.

The bulk of the show’s set list is pulled from the album Madame X with more than a few classics woven in: “Express Yourself,” “Rescue Me,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “American Life” (sounding fresher and more prescient than ever), “Frozen” (a breathtaking performance which includes floor-to-ceiling projections of Madonna’s first-child Lourdes dancing as her mother sings this haunting hit from Ray of Light, the album inspired by Lourdes’ birth), “La Isla Bonita,” “Human Nature,” and a rousing “Like a Prayer.”

My work pals and yours truly before dinner/show

The old songs fit nicely alongside the new, providing a thematic arc of free-expression and heartfelt-spirituality that is quite effective, juxtaposed as they are with dystopian images of a society skidding off the rails: dancers in police garb, gas masks, and other militant fetish-wear or the recurring martial motif of a vintage typewriter whose striking keys double as gunfire throughout the production.

When Madonna visits some of the stronger material from Madame X – the stuttering sci-fi shmaltz of “Future,” the slinky robo-cha-cha-cha of “Medellin,” or the sultry disco of “Crave” – the show is a luscious dream.

As with every Madonna tour, there are a couple of numbers to preserve in the proverbial time capsule. In the case of Madame X (in addition to some wonderful exploration of Lisbon’s Fado culture), “Batuka” with its accompaniment by the all-women Orquestra Batukadeiras is a rocket-blast of fist-pumping feminism. The show’s encore “I Rise” is a goose-bump-inducing salute to any and all who’ve been marginalized by a society that praises conformity above all else.

As Madonna marched into the audience and out the lobby doors of the Chicago Theatre Thursday night, her entire retinue in tow and chanting “I Rise,” I found myself moved to tears and thinking there may be hope for all of the Arthur Flecks in this world after all.

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With my Detroit pals at Come From Away

There’s nothin’ you can do to me that hasn’t been done
Not bulletproof, shouldn’t have to run from a gun
River of tears ran dry, let ’em run
No game that you can play with me, I ain’t one

‘Cause I’m goin’ through it, yeah
I know you see the tragic in it (alright)
Just hold on to the little bit of magic in it (yeah)
I can’t break down now
I can’t take that now (I can’t take that now)

Died a thousand times
Managed to survive (I managed to survive)
I can’t break down now


I can’t take that (I can’t take that)

I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it, up above it
(I rise) I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it all

I managed to survive
Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you
No one can hurt you now unless you want them to (Unless you want)
No one can hurt you now unless you love ’em too
Unless you love ’em too

– Madonna, “I Rise” from Madame X

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Yes, I bought a Madame X eye patch at the souvenir stand. It did not fit MY big noggin alas.

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.

“Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.” Joker

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I’ve proved my point. I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” – Joker in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke

“Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.” –  Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in Joker

“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” – Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in his journal in Joker

“Rated as many stars as possible. Brimming with messages about humanity. Incredible and mesmerizing. The best scene reflected in the poster [Joker descending the steps, fully realized]. The film turns embedded prejudices and mindsets and pseudo-psychology and psycho-babble on their collective heads. Disturbing? Yes. Important to view with an open mind? Absolutely! Not your typical comic book villain nor hero. Heartbreaking but enlightening. Stay focused and let this gem penetrate your heart. All due to the earnest performance of Joaquin Phoenix. Bravo and hallelujah!” – Susie Sexton, my mom, in her review as shared on Facebook.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Joker is a brilliant, heartbreaking, honest, essential film. Its lesson? Focus on the origin with empathy if you truly want to avert the outcomes depicted. Best film I’ve seen this year.

Joaquin Phoenix, who has always been one of our most dependable if at times criminally underrated actors, gives the performance of a lifetime as Arthur Fleck, a man shattered by a relentlessly unforgiving society that has rarely, if ever, graced him with a kind word or charitable thought. Far TOO much has been written that Joker will inspire “lone wolf” killers to act upon their most marginalized feelings and strike us good, pure, honest citizens down as we cheerfully consume material goods, collect our paychecks, and avoid our own hidden pain(s). Bullsh*t.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Those folks who shout “thoughts and prayers” in the midst of firearm-fueled massacre, those folks who say we need “mental health awareness” not “gun control,” those folks who turn a blind eye to the institutionalized bullying that breaks sensitive souls? This movie should be required viewing for them (us) all. The true criminal act is to imply violence occurs in a vacuum, to suggest that mental breaks from reality are somehow apropos of nothing, and to look past our collective tendency to pathologically distance ourselves from the very people who need our help the most. Joker is the movie we all need desperately right now.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It is also interesting to me that casual viewers see Joker as “too dark” or “too intense” or “too morally ambiguous” for a comic book movie. I recommend you turn an eye toward 1988’s Alan Moore/Brian Bolland seminal graphic novel The Killing Joke (written over 30! years ago), which, while not a literal blueprint for Todd Phillips’ film, provides Joker with its essential DNA. Moore was one of the first to plumb the depths of why the Clown Prince of Crime is the way he is. (Tim Burton lifted the most superficial of aspects here for 1989’s Batman with its fixation on the yin/yang duality of Batman and his primary nemesis.) In The Killing Joke, we see a man rejected and broken by one disappointment upon another, until he finally succumbs to the message he believes he’s been receiving all along: you aren’t wanted by this world, so let this world know how little you want it. It was a powerful and disconcerting take in its day, made even more controversial due to its scenes depicting the rape and torture of Batgirl and her father Commissioner Gordon. Blessedly, Phillips (The Hangover trilogy, Borat) working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Scott Silver, gives us the sense memory of The Killing Joke while jettisoning Moore’s more misanthropic/sadistic tendencies.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Joker is a movie I will be thinking about for a very long time. I could cry now reliving Phoenix’ early scenes – his glimmers of puppy-like hope dashed by one cruel word after another, his eyes conveying decades of hurt, his fractured heart yearning for empathy. It is a remarkable performance, layered and loving, with a Chaplinesque understanding that the most compelling underdogs are simultaneously winsome and incendiary. The turn he takes, slowly, methodically, as he is increasingly battered, does eventually result in violent impulse, but the film is not the bloodbath some might have you believe. There are three particularly shocking flashes of rage, as Arthur/Joker rewards his tormentors with the very lessons they have been teaching him. In each instance, there is a logic – and a horror – and unlike most Hollywood films, in Joker, violence has consequence and emotional weight. I believe that is a crucial distinction that pundits aren’t making, and I’m not entirely sure why.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The cinematography by Lawrence Sher and the musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir are almost characters in Joker unto themselves, crucial to the narrative, framing the film’s emotional grace notes and enveloping the audience in an increasing sense of disorientation. And the supporting cast, including Robert DeNiro as a smarmy talk show host, Frances Conroy as Arthur’s tortured mother, Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s neighbor and possible love interest, and Brett Cullen as a Trumpian Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s papa) are all excellent – Dickensian specters dancing in and out of the passion play in Arthur’s mind.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“In my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice,” Arthur observes as he becomes the reflection of the dark society in which he dwells. Joker is, in fact, a subversive film because it dares to suggest that we, each and every one of us – with our casual cruelty, our blithe self-absorption, our overt thuggery – are responsible for the toxicity in our society, for those who are broken by it, and for those who act violently upon it. There is no easy blame in Joker, and that’s why the film may make some self-righteous souls uncomfortable.  Joker swivels the mirror on its audience and hisses, “You are the problem, and only you can fix it.”

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“On Wednesday night I attended the New York Film Festival and witnessed a cinematic masterpiece, the film that last month won the top prize as the Best Film of the Venice International Film Festival. It’s called Joker — and all we Americans have heard about this movie is that we should fear it and stay away from it. We’ve been told it’s violent and sick and morally corrupt — an incitement and celebration of murder. We’ve been told that police will be at every screening this weekend in case of ‘trouble.’ Our country is in deep despair, our constitution is in shreds, a rogue maniac from Queens has access to the nuclear codes — but for some reason, it’s a movie we should be afraid of. I would suggest the opposite: The greater danger to society may be if you DON’T go see this movie. Because the story it tells and the issues it raises are so profound, so necessary, that if you look away from the genius of this work of art, you will miss the gift of the mirror it is offering us. Yes, there’s a disturbed clown in that mirror, but he’s not alone — we’re standing right there beside him.” – Michael Moore in a Facebook post about Joker

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“To appreciate Joker I believe you have to have either gone through something traumatic in your lifetime (and I believe most of us have) or understand somewhere in your psyche what true compassion is (which usually comes from having gone through something traumatic, unfortunately). An example of dangerous compassion would be to, say, make a film made about the fragility of the human psyche, and make it so raw, so brutal, so balletic that by the time you leave the theatre you not only don’t want to hurt anything but you desperately want an answer and a solution to the violence and mental health issues that have spun out of control around us. This film makes you hurt and only in pain do we ever want to change. It’s all in the irony of trauma — a fine line between the resentment of wanting to hurt society back for raping you of a decent life, for not protecting you, and accepting what feels like alien feelings with softening to those others who seem freakish in our era of judgment, and digital damnation. Like kids in Middle School: man, they can just be mean. For no reason. And, sometimes, those awful little clicky [sic] kids breed an evil in someone that rages much later, when everyone pretends we are all back to normal, when we all thought it had just manned up and gone away. We have a habit of hating and ostracizing and dividing and sweeping our problems under the rug. Joker, is simply lifting the rug and looking underneath it. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s there.” – Josh Brolin in an Instagram post about Joker

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” – Joker in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke

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Thank you to Thomas Paden and the Canton Chamber for this TV opportunity to discuss our #RealMenWearPink Detroit campaign. View here.

Grateful to be interviewed alongside rock stars Denise Isenberg Staffeld and Megan Schaper. And stick around to the end to see/hear the official video of yours truly singing #PureImagination with accompaniment by super talented Kevin Robert Ryan.

If you feel so moved to donate, please click here.

“Breast cancer affects everyone women and men. That’s why we’re recruiting men to fight breast cancer through Real Men Wear Pink. This distinguished group of community leaders is determined to raise awareness and money to support the American Cancer Society’s mission and save more lives than ever before from breast cancer.”

 

Also, don’t forget that Theatre NOVA’s Follies in Concert opens November 7. I’m playing “Buddy”! We had our first read-through this week, and it’s such a marvelous cast! It’s going to be great fun. Tickets here

Sondheim’s Broadway smash hit musical concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies” that played in that theatre between the World Wars. A fundraiser for Theatre NOVA and presented in concert, Follies is a glamorous and fascinating peek into a bygone era, and a clear-eyed look at the transformation of relationships over time, with countless songs that have become standards, including “Broadway Baby,” ” I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings,” “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind.” Directed by Diane Hill with music direction by Brian E. Buckner. Featuring Sue Booth, Tom Murphy, Diane Hill, Roy Sexton, Annie Kordas, Kryssy Becker, Eddie Rothermel, Connor Rhoades, Harold Jurkiewicz, Olive Hayden-Moore, Carrie Jaye Sayer, Emily Rogers-Driskill, Gayle Martin, Edith Lewis and Darnell Ishmel.

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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.

“‘Cause I’m gonna be true … if you let me.” Judy (2019 film) and the National Theatre’s cinema broadcast of Fleabag (stage production)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

From The Standard: “Good things can come out of rage,” [Fleabag creator and Emmy-winning star Phoebe] Waller-Bridge said in an interview with the Guardian. A director once told her that she has the “gift of rage”. It made her want to find the rage in the characters she writes. “Once you know what makes someone angry, you can tell a lot about that person.” When asked what makes her angry, she replied: “I feel rage about casual and systemic sexism. I feel rage at how quickly the double standards could be balanced if men gave women the back up they need to stop us having to shout into our own vaginas all the time. But mainly I rage at myself for my own ability to let things slide because I’d rather be ‘nice’ than stand up for myself in an uncomfortable situation. My characters have streaks of fearlessness. I get a rush writing women who don’t care what you think. Probably to help me grow into being one.”

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    “Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.”
  • “How strange when an illusion dies. It’s as though you’ve lost a child.”
  • “I’ve always taken ‘The Wizard of Oz’ very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it. ”

– Judy Garland

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“Get over it.” Such an odd expression, and typically employed when someone else wants you to just move past something because your fixation upon whatever “it” may be is annoying to them, NOT because the speaker actually has a vested interest in your emotional well-being or in true resolution.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Trauma never truly leaves us. That is the common theme in the two tour-de-force performances I had the good fortune of viewing last week: Renee Zellweger’s Oscar-buzzy turn as Judy Garland in Judy and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s National Theatre-in-cinemas broadcast of her one woman show Fleabag (which inspired the critically-acclaimed tv series of the same name).

More pointedly, in our patriarchal culture, trauma is the chief instrument of torture and control employed to bludgeon, isolate, and shame bright, brilliant, willful women.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Judy Garland blazed like a supernova through her short life, her mistreatment as a child star yielding an adulthood riddled with addiction and anxiety which in turn engendered a final days stage persona that was raw, evocative, cathartic, electric, and unforgettable.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unbridled wit and wisdom are discomforting in the best ways, with a delivery both inviting and unsettling, speaking truths nobody expects to hear with a wink and a smile. In this sense, she’s a spiritual heir to the unpredictable live wire act of Judy Garland’s latter years. Blessedly, we live in a time, challenged and challenging as it may be, that awards Waller-Bridge with a well-deserved Emmy coronation (last week), as opposed to running her into the ground (so far).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Neither Judy nor Fleabag (Waller-Bridge’s character is never named) can catch a break. Are their tragic circumstances of their own devising or are they symptomatic of a society that doesn’t quite know what to do with human beings that defy categorization? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Judy, like Fleabag, began life as a stage show, in this instance titled End of the Rainbow. The narrative details the final tumultuous days of screen legend Judy Garland’s career (portrayed with affection by an often unrecognizable Renee Zellweger). In the film, Garland takes up a concert residency in London to make ends meet and hopefully save up enough dough to reclaim her young children Lorna and Joey from her adversarial ex Sid Luft (the redoubtable Rufus Sewell at his glowering, wounded best).

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As Garland bounces around London, dodging her beleaguered handler Rosalyn Wilder (a wry Jessie Buckley) and falling into the arms of a starstruck gigolo Mickey Deans (a dishy but surprisingly wan Finn Wittrock), the isolation of her fame and the collective contempt for her basic human needs send her spiraling to the point of no return. Judy isn’t overtly a film about misogyny, and yet it is a movie about nothing but misogyny.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The clunky flashbacks to Garland’s tortured youth on the MGM backlot are teleplay hackneyed, save for the looming specter of Louis B. Mayer (a really creepy Richard Cordery). He haunts the young Judy at every turn, squelching her rare moments of joy with a steady assault of body-shaming, victim-blaming, and outright gaslighting. The film posits that Garland’s shaky self-esteem, brittle persona, and desire to be a good mother above all else were deeply rooted in those brutal early years. Zellweger is at her best in the film’s second and third acts, as the betrayals mount and her tenuous grasp on reality slips further away, her white hot (and justifiable) rage finding its perfect outlet in her  jagged, jazzy, jittery concert magic.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Beyond Zellweger’s remarkable physicality and her vocal performance (not exactly mimicking Garland but evoking her essence), the heart and soul of the film rests in a pivotal sequence when Judy seeks safe harbor with a pair of stage door fans: Dan and Stan (charming Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira), a middle-aged gay couple who have spent every penny they have to view the chanteuse perform night after night. She asks them plaintively, “Want to go get dinner?” Like any groupies, they are overjoyed by the request but then horrified when they discover every restaurant in town is closed and all they have to offer her is a plate of runny scrambled eggs in their humble flat. The scene in the couple’s apartment is quiet and heartwarming and devastating as the trio unearths their kinship as marginalized beings, hated by society for the very attributes that set them beautifully apart.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The spiky id of the outcast also finds perfect expression in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, whether in television series form or in its original stage production. Waller-Bridge is an exceptional writer, but her ability as a performer to channel righteous indignation into a kind of rubbery guffaw over the arbitrary etiquette of modern living is damn genius. Seeing the stage show, it becomes clear that the tv series softens some of the title character’s edges, not diminishing her power but making her just a tetch more palatable to observe week after week. The stage production pulls no punches – nor are there any winsome appearances by Andrew Scott (Sherlock‘s Moriarty) as her fox-fearing, besotted priest boyfriend, alas – and the stage show is that much stronger as a result.

The stage character Fleabag may or may not be responsible ultimately for the suicide of her best friend, for the business failures of her guinea-pig themed cafe, for her fractured relations with her sister and father and stepmother, but she has ultimate agency. Every bad choice she makes is fully her own, as she careens through a world that is plagued with little wit and even less color. Fleabag just wants to feel. Something. Anything. And she uses sex in a failed overture to reclaim the narrative and to bring some kind of engagement with the zombies surrounding her. Not unlike the Judy Garland of Judy, the stage version of the Fleabag character spins into increasingly desperate situations, befuddled by the contempt people hold for her unyielding spark. Unlike Judy whose life ends with a tragic whimper, Fleabag’s tale ends with a defiant “f*ck off” as she tells a potential employer where, literally, he can go.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So, maybe there’s hope yet. Good things can come from rage.

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I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you
Come rain or come shine
High as a mountain and deep as a river
Come rain or come shine

I guess when you met me, it was just one of those things
But don’t you ever bet me, ’cause I’m gonna be true if you let me

You’re gonna love me like nobody’s loved me
Come rain or come shine
We’ll be happy together, unhappy together
Now won’t that be just fine?

The days may be cloudy or sunny
We’re in or we’re out of the money
But I’m with you always
I’m with you rain or shine

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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.

“America is just one big strip club.” Hustlers, IT Chapter Two, and Theatre Nova’s latest production Admissions

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    “… the ‘Horatio Alger myth’: a teenage boy works hard to escape poverty. Often it is not hard work that rescues the boy from his fate but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty. The boy might return a large sum of lost money or rescue someone from an overturned carriage. This brings the boy—and his plight—to the attention of a wealthy individual.” – Wikipedia entry on author Horatio Alger
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    “America is just one big strip club … You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers
  • “From one angle … motherhood can be viewed as one long journey of overcoming obstacles. I salute mothers everywhere who overcome obstacles with grace, courage and tenacity. … There was this huge obstacle in the way that needed to be fixed for my daughter’s sake.” – amalgamation of quotes from scandal-ridden Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman
  • “Motherhood is a kind of madness.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

America is a “land of opportunity,” that is, if you are on the right side of the carnival game. This fall’s cinematic completion of Stephen King’s classic novel It, directed again as a labor of love by Andy Muschietti, opens with a grown man defeating a little girl in one such street fair contest and then magnanimously leaning down, whispering in her ear “thank you for letting me win,” and handing her the ugly stuffed frog (I think it was a frog?) he receives as a prize. It is as warm a moment as it is pandering, the young man’s buddy looking on admiringly. As the two men wander away, they lock in an embrace. Things aren’t what they seem. Moments later they are victims of one of the most brutal gay bashings I’ve seen on screen, the result of malevolent Pennywise the Clown’s supernatural influence on an already provincial, ugly, small-minded Maine town. (Truth be told, small-minded small towns are one of King’s favorite literary targets, God love him). There’s your American dream, folks, in one cynical, tragic, and heartbreaking 15 minute sprawl. [King based the incident in his novel on a real-life hate crime in Bangor, Maine, in 1986, at a time when few people would publicly address such horror.]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hustlers, written and directed with sizzle and sass by Lorene Scafaria, brings Jennifer Lopez, the actor, back on screen in a fiery mama lion performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen from her in years. Lopez is a multi-hyphenate talent and by all accounts a pretty likable human being, but she has not been willing to play anything other than that on screen in a long time. Her stripper den mother Ramona avails herself of the 2008 financial crisis and the ugly stew of capitalistic greed, toxic masculinity, rampant misogyny, female objectification, and weaponized sexuality that seems to be Wall Street’s stock-in-trade (if the movies are to be believed … paging Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko). Imagine if Magic Mike were written and produced by the team who put together The Big Short.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ramona and her pals (a dynamite ensemble that includes Crazy Rich AsiansConstance Wu, Akeelah and the Bee‘s Keke Palmer, and Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart with crackerjack supporting turns by Julia Styles, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl, and singers Cardi B and Lizzo) gleefully (and illegally) flip the script on predatory men, drugging them, dragging them to strip clubs, draining their corporate credit cards, and leaving them in a heap of deflated machismo, far too embarrassed to press any charges. The women’s motivation? A mix of revenge, justice, and primarily a desire to provide better lives for their daughters, grandmothers, and other women in their lives.

[Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

The third leg of that “American dream”? College education and that carnival game that is the admissions process are addressed with incisive wit, searing criticism, and deft balance in the timely Michigan premiere of Joshua Harmon’s play Admissions by Ann Arbor’s Theatre NOVA, directed with aplomb by David Wolber. (Note: this show must be a beast to learn and to mount, with its zig-zagging clutch of monologues and whiplash inducing reversals of philosophy. I suspect Wolber and cast must share the kind of  brainpower required to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in record time.)

Hill and Burcon [Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

In Admissions, a cheerfully smug couple Sherri and Bill, both working in administration at a New England prep school (Diane Hill and Joe Bailey, both at the top of their games here), are faced with the consequences of their own best liberal intentions to create “balanced diversity” at Hillcrest (the setting of the piece) when their own son, a student there, is wait-listed for Yale University. Their boy Charlie – a brilliant whirlwind of well-meaning confusion and privileged petulance in Jeremy Kucharek’s thoughtful performance – is passed over by Yale in favor of his best friend at Hillcrest (and the child of his parents’ best friends), a young man of color, whom Charlie believes to be “less accomplished than himself.” As you can imagine, in the grand tradition of school-based satiric comedies like God of Carnage or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, matters escalate and spiral quickly. Cynthia Szczesny as Sherri’s befuddled assistant and Sarah Burcon as Sherri’s best pal Ginnie serve as a kind of de facto Greek chorus, highlighting the absurdity of the situation and the dire consequences of good intentions that are as ego-driven as they are divorced from day-to-day reality.

Bailey, Hill, and Kucharek [Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns the narrative takes, but, suffice it to say this is neither a play the MAGA crowd will love nor one any Bernie Bros will embrace. Admissions casts a pretty scathing eye on us all and the mechanisms we craft to make a better world in our own images (whatever we believe those images to be). The title, of course, is a play on words: the literal use of “admissions” in terms of higher education and the figurative in terms of those honest truths we can’t bear to say out loud. A special shout out to Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant and economical use of Theatre NOVA’s warm, inviting, but challenging physical space. The use of a turntable to contrast home and office is smart, efficient, and (perhaps unintentionally) symbolic of the topsy turvy nature of the play itself.

[Admissions runs through October 13 and tickets may be purchased at www.theatrenova.org.]

And now back to It, Chapter Two. The first film nailed the pastoral qualities of youth in America, with that bubbling, malevolent, churning undercurrent of impending adulthood, cultural manipulation, and familial and societal abuse that Stephen King does so very well. The second film – not dissimilar to the second half of the 1990 ABC mini-series – suffers structurally in that the Losers Club are reunited in adulthood, seemingly all amnesiac to the horrifying events of their youths at the hands of ugly townspeople, parents, bullies, and Pennywise himself. It, Chapter Two is at its strongest in flashbacks to the children of the first film, filling in the gaps of the fateful summer depicted in Chapter One.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

 

That said, the adult cast of Chapter Two – including Mamas Jessica Chastain, Trainwreck‘s Bill Hader, X-Men‘s James McAvoy, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransome, and Andy Bean – do yeoman’s work selling the turmoil of adults, who have successfully “forgotten” the abuses of small town American living to achieve material success (if not emotional happiness) in the “big city.” Pennywise, brilliantly played again to maximum creepiness by Bill Skarsgard, is the inversion of the Horatio Alger myth and more likely a corollary to the true American experience. It is not a helping hand magnanimously offered that pulls someone up the corporate ladder, once said individual has demonstrated his or her “heart of gold;” it is fear, it is persecution, and it is one heaping chip on one’s shoulder, propelling us onward toward “happiness,” the achievement of which may never be all it’s cracked up to be.  If there’s a through-line in the three very disparate entertainments I took in this weekend, it’s that.

  • “The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood’s dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.” – Stephen King, Salem’s Lot.

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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.